Brewers Sign Kolten Wong to Overhaul Infield Defense

This week, one NL Central team has acquired the best defender at a key infield position. He’ll be playing the 2021 season at age-30, and he was below average offensively in 2020, so it’s not as though there aren’t red flags, but great defense doesn’t grow on trees. That’s right: the Brewers signed Kolten Wong to a two-year, $18 million contract, as Jon Morosi first reported.

While Nolan Arenado might have fallen behind Matt Chapman in the third base defense hierarchy, Wong reigns supreme at second. For three straight years, he’s won the Fielding Bible award at second base. Every advanced defensive metric sees him as the best fielder in the game over the past three years. Bigger fan of the eye test? He can do this:

Okay, fine, single defensive highlights are a bad reflection of talent. But he can do this, too:

I could go on all day if there weren’t an article to write. Wong is one of my very favorite players to watch. This is a transaction analysis, though, so I’ll restrain myself, and merely say that our very good defensive projections for Wong might still be conservative.

When he’s at the plate, Wong gets to roughly average offensive value with one simple trick: he controls the non-contact portion of the game. Over the last three years, he’s struck out 173 times, or 15% of his non-IBB plate appearances. He’s walked, or been hit by a pitch, 120 times in those non-IBB plate appearances, or 10.4%.

I’ve written about what that means for his value before, but briefly: batters have hit for a .372 wOBA on contact from 2018-2020. If Wong hit for a .329 wOBA on contact, he’d be an average batter overall. That means that he can be a substantially below-average hitter when he actually connects with the ball and still put up an average line.

That’s convenient, because Wong is a below-average hitter when he makes contact. His barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and maximum exit velocity are what you’d expect from a 5-foot-9 middle infielder:

Kolten Wong’s Batted Ball Metrics, 2015-20
Year Barrel Rate Lg Avg Hard-Hit Rate Lg Avg Max Ev
2015 2.8% 4.8% 34.3% 33.3% 110.5
2016 2.6% 5.7% 26.3% 34.5% 107.5
2017 2.0% 5.7% 28.5% 33.3% 109.7
2018 2.3% 6.2% 30.8% 35.3% 107.1
2019 2.0% 6.8% 25.1% 36.5% 107.7
2020 0.6% 7.6% 26.6% 37.3% 103.7

As you might surmise from the fact that he’s a roughly average hitter overall, he’s been close to that .329 wOBA on contact. Since 2015, he’s put 1,893 balls in play, certainly a big enough sample to draw conclusions. He has a .331 wOBA on them, which agrees well with a .327 xwOBA. The result is an OBP-heavy batting line that comes in near average overall; in the last three years, he’s hitting .269/.349/.393, good for a 102 wRC+.

No surprises here: an average hitter with premium defense works out to a better-than-average player on the whole. That explains why Wong commanded a premium over the swath of similar second base types who hit the market this offseason. Tommy La Stella, Cesar Hernandez, and Jurickson Profar all signed deals with annual values between $5 million and $7 million. Wong is getting $9 million annually, though he did surrender a club option ($8 million for 2023) to seal the deal.

Despite the fact that Wong will out-earn that trio, he still looks like an excellent value to me. It doesn’t feel this way, because again, he doesn’t have lights-out offensive numbers, but the last time Wong had a bad season on a per-PA basis was a long time ago:

Kolten Wong’s WAR by Season
Year PA WAR WAR/600
2013 62 -0.3 -2.9
2014 433 1.8 2.5
2015 613 2.5 2.4
2016 361 1.2 2.0
2017 411 2.2 3.2
2018 407 2.8 4.1
2019 549 3.7 4.0
2020 208 1.3 3.8

That’s not to say there’s no downside, but there’s a lot about his game to like. You’ve probably heard the saying “defense doesn’t slump,” but plate discipline is a stable way of getting to your value as well. I’m not saying Wong will throw up a 4 WAR season, but he has a track record of being valuable when healthy, far more so than anyone else at his tier of the market.

There’s really only one holdup here: the Brewers already have a second baseman. Keston Hiura has never appeared in a major league game at any other position on the field, and he’s part of the Brewers’ long-term plans. Are they giving up on him?

Hardly. For all his offensive talents, Hiura is one of the worst second base defenders in the game. I don’t mean that hyperbolically, either. Since his debut in 2019, DRS thinks Hiura is the second-worst defender at the keystone in the majors, ahead of only Profar. UZR thinks he’s the worst defender at the position, five runs worse than his nearest competition. Statcast’s OAA thinks — you guessed it — he’s the worst defensive second baseman in the game. The results simply weren’t pretty.

Hiura was never going to stick at second base with that record of futility. The team hoped that he was still suffering the effects of a lingering injury, but at this point, it’s not a matter of a bad month or two. Scouting reports were universally nervous about his defense before he made the big leagues, and while nothing says he can’t improve, it’s tough to play such a limited defender at an up-the-middle position and escape with your pitchers’ sanity (and ERA) intact.

As Tom Haudricourt reported, GM David Stearns was already open to using Hiura at first base in 2021 before the team signed Wong. That solves a lot of their problems in one fell swoop. Hiura was never a long-term fit at second base, and giving him a new position to learn now rather than later is certainly not a bad idea. The Brewers have struggled to generate offense at first base; before Hiura’s shift, they were relying on Daniel Vogelbach, an enjoyably-shaped player who got DFA’ed by two different teams last year.

Vogelbach will still have value as a backup first baseman and pinch hitter, but Milwaukee sees Hiura as part of their core. If you think they’re roughly equal as first baseman — both ZiPS and Steamer actually like Vogelbach’s bat more, but I respectfully disagree — that means the team is making a simple swap. Lose Vogelbach’s bat in exchange for Wong’s, and you gain Wong’s glove in exchange for Hiura’s — unless there’s an NL DH, which would be pure upside.

Say, conservatively, that Wong will take 600 plate appearances that Vogelbach would have taken. That’s almost certainly over-estimating the case, but per their projections, that would cost the Brewers roughly 11 runs of offensive value. Wong has been 23.6 runs better than Hiura on defense per 150 games, per UZR. If you’d prefer DRS, that difference balloons to 35 runs. OAA is right around 24 runs. As it turns out, the difference between the very best and very worst defender is substantial.

Projections and past numbers aren’t everything. Sometimes projections can tell you — just to pick an idle example — that Dan Vogelbach is a better hitter than Keston Hiura. Sometimes past numbers can tell you that J.D. Martinez will never figure it out. In this case, though, you don’t need the math to tell you that this deal makes sense. The Brewers turned a huge weakness into a huge strength for cheap, and if it works out for them, they’ll have Wong for three years.

The only question for Milwaukee in this deal is whether they’re done adding to the team. They’re still more than a little short on the infield — at the moment, they’re poised to start Orlando Arcia at short and Luis Urías at third. They need starting pitching depth — one injury, and the back of the rotation gets dicey. Signing Wong and calling it a day feels a little Mission Accoimplished-y.

That’s no indictment on this signing. There’s always more to do. Signing Kolten Wong gives the Brewers a much-needed kick in the right direction, and that’s all a free agent signing can do. Well, it’s all they can do in the big-picture competitive sense. Some free agent signings can also do this:

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

He was easily my favourite Redbird, and I will miss him in SL. But at least he didn’t sign…with some non-MIL NL Central side.

3 years ago

I think I’m more saddened by Wong’s departure than any other Cardinals player since Pujols. I understand it from a payroll perspective, but it’s s bummer! I think he’s the first guy I remember keeping track of as a prospect. He may not be the best Cardinal of the past decade, but you never forget your first, I suppose.

3 years ago

My 9-year-old son’s two favorite teams are the Cardinals and Dodgers. His favorite Cardinal was Kolten Wong. His favorite Dodger was Joc Pederson. Whoops.

3 years ago