Milwaukee’s second baseman has found success with an aggressiveness typically found in the middle of a lineup.
While in-season acquisitions Willy Adames and Rowdy Tellez have received plenty of attention, Kolten Wong has proven to be an extremely fruitful addition for the Milwaukee Brewers. After the St. Louis Cardinals declined his option for the 2021 season, the Brewers scooped up the second baseman on a two-year deal with a club option for a third season. He has played in just 84 games thanks to multiple stints on the injured list, but Wong’s 2.6 fWAR ranks fourth on the roster. His 119 wRC+ is by far the best of his nine-year career.
When healthy, Wong has served as the team’s leadoff hitter, where he has been a valuable contributor. In today’s game, this role is typically assigned to the player with some of the best on-base skills. He is expected to see plenty of pitches, draw his fair share of walks, and maybe have some base-stealing ability as a bonus.
Think back to when the Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain in 2018 to serve as their leadoff man. Cain tweaked his approach to see more pitches, draw free passes, and reach base at a higher rate. For the first time in his career, Cain walked at a double-digit clip (11.5%), and his .395 on-base percentage was dramatically higher than his career mark of just over .340.
One might expect Wong to follow a similar model, but he is actually doing the opposite. He hasn’t gone up to the plate looking to take some pitches and work a walk. Instead, he has been notably more aggressive than he was in his final season as a Cardinal.
After being more passive in 2020, Wong returned to the more aggressive approach he utilized in his successful 2019 season. While many of the plate discipline metrics between 2019 and 2021 look similar, the context of Wong’s position in the batting order matters. With the Cardinals, he primarily batted in the 7th and 8th spots. With the Brewers, he has been leading off. Instead of being more patient in light of his new role, he has been more aggressive.
Wong’s walk rate is now much lower than the league average. From a personal standpoint, it’s at its lowest since 2015. Instead, he’s reaching base by racking up hits to the tune of a .288 batting average. His swing rate on middle-middle pitches is a career-high. To top it off, he is seeing an average of 3.62 pitches per plate appearance this year, which is the lowest mark of his career. In other words, Wong is not waiting around.
How unusual is this approach? Among hitters to amass 200 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter this season, Wong’s walk rate is the 6th-lowest. Even after reducing the threshold to just 100 plate appearances, he remains in the bottom 10. In many ways, his plan at the plate more closely resembles that of a hitter looking to drive in runs, not someone setting the table for the big bats behind him.
The 30-year-old has not been afraid to pounce on the first pitch of at-bats. In fact, he has done much of his damage early in counts. Wong has a fantastic .469 wOBA on the first pitch, which is by far the highest of his career and ranks among the best in baseball (league average is .395). In particular, he is hunting first-pitch fastballs and jumping on them, batting .464 with a .529 wOBA.
Wong’s unconventional approach atop the lineup bears some resemblance to Carlos Gomez’s days as Milwaukee’s leadoff man. While Gomez was known for frequently swinging out of his helmet and possessed far more power than Wong does, both are examples of leadoff hitters who desired to do more active damage rather than focusing on walks and an elite on-base percentage.
Rather than settling into the typical strategy associated with the position, Kolten Wong has opted to be more aggressive as the Brewers’ leadoff man. That approach has paid off, both for himself and the team. He has always been at his best when swinging at more pitches. Not only should Wong be acknowledged for his contributions at the plate and in the field, but the Brewers also deserve credit for allowing the veteran second baseman to be himself.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.