The Kolten Wong Dilemma

Seattle Mariners v Detroit Tigers
Seattle Mariners v Detroit Tigers / Duane Burleson/GettyImages

On December 2, 2022, fans of the Seattle Mariners saw their phones light up with a Twitter notification. Jeff Passan announced that the team had gotten rid of Jesse Winker and ended a season-long saga that really could not have gone worse. Alongside Winker, Abraham Toro was headed to the Brewers in exchange for former Gold Glove-winning second baseman Kolten Wong. 

Expectations for the 32-year-old with an improving bat were relatively high, as he was set to replace Adam Frazier in the lineup and in the field. Even despite a slow start out of the gates, fans and analysts alike were ready to give him time to find his swing in Seattle.

Now, 44 games in, it may be time to entirely prepare the team to move on from the big offseason addition. Both in the field and at the plate, Wong is having the worst season of his career. It is as if the Monstars from “Space Jam” have made the switch to baseball to get some talent. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto recognizes the severe lack of production, saying that his current benching is an attempt to aid in his attempt to find his bat. 

"And you may see that more in the short term as we try just to give Kolten a chance to reset and get his season started in the way he’s accustomed to playing."

Jerry Dipoto on Seattle Sports 710-AM

No matter how the bat played, getting a former Gold Glove second baseman brings the expectation that the defense will be good, if not elite. However, even that has completely disappeared in 2023. Going from the highs of 13 and 17 defensive runs saved in 2018 and 2019, respectively, to tallying a career-low -8 already in just 254.2 innings played this year. While the trend of deteriorating defense started last year, it has become a much larger problem at an exponential rate. 

His 27th percentile outs above average are far from the 90th percentile he had in 2018. The loss of the glove is bizarre, to say the least, as at least for the bat, there is evidence possibly explaining the reason for his struggles. 

As for the bat, Wong has slashed .177/.259/.208 so far this year, a .468 OPS and 36 OPS+ being easily the worst of his career. His percentiles stay dark blue all around, an attestment to his struggles. He ranks in the 2nd percentile in average exit velocity, 4th in hard hit percentage, 1st in expected slugging and 2nd in barrel percentage, among other blue circles. 

The biggest change from his past two seasons to this year has been his struggles with the fastball. What used to be the pitch he hit the best, putting up 10.6 and 12.1 runs above average against the pitch in 2021 and 2022. He has a -2.2 against it in 2023. 

A major reason for those struggles is pitchers know that he had the most success on it over the past two seasons, seeing the pitch less and less with each passing season. While in his rookie year, he saw a fastball 61.9% of the time, and he is seeing the pitch just 45.4% of the time in 2023. 

Wong is also struggling with how he is hitting the ball. He is not a power hitter, but he is hitting far too many fly balls that get nothing productive done. He is hitting a fly ball 33.3% of the time and hitting a line drive just 13.3% of the time. He has been unable to find a consistent launch angle so far. Whether it is the unfamiliar batter’s eye or environment as a whole, or if it is a mechanical issue, he is getting under the ball and missing the fastball more than he used to, leading to his production at the plate taking a nose dive. 

The Mariners need him to figure it out soon, as his current 40 WRC+ does no one any favors other than the opposing pitcher.