Being a rookie on any team in any sport at any level of play presents challenges. On the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals, it was even more so.
A youngster might find himself benched or sent back to the minors or face multiple role changes or even be called out in the media by club officials. In the worst case, all of the above could happen, and did.
Despite all that, a number of promising players graduated from the Cardinals minor league system to make significant contributions with St. Louis in 2014.
One clearly stands out from among the others, however. The top performer is The Cardinal Nation’s St. Louis Rookie of the Year, second baseman Kolten Wong.
Coming into the season, the then-23-year-old had both plusses and minuses on his ledger.
On the positive side, Wong had been named the Player of the Year in the minor league system in 2013 and made his Major League debut. David Freese was traded away during the off-season with Matt Carpenter moved back to third base, opening a lineup spot.
On the other hand, Wong had to carry the burden of a costly pickoff during the World Series that had reduced him to tears. Further, the Cardinals spent $5 million to sign veteran free agent second baseman Mark Ellis, hardly an endorsement.
Wong started slowly in spring training, but by the end of camp, he was among the Grapefruit League’s offensive leaders in batting average (.375) and on-base percentage (.434). He appeared to take the second spot in the batting order, assisted by Ellis opening the season on the disabled list.
Despite that, the Cardinals showed little patience with the rookie – 20 games to be exact.
On April 27th, with the Cardinals already 5 ½ games behind streaking Milwaukee, the club determined something needed to be done. Though a number of veterans on the roster were struggling even more than Wong, the kid took the fall.
Apparently the club’s two full-time hitting coaches were busy with the others, as Wong was surprisingly shipped back to Memphis to work on his swing. He had accrued just 71 at-bats, during which he hit .225.
To his credit, the left-handed hitter kept quiet and did what he was told. In 15 Triple-A games, Wong showed the Cardinals he clearly did not belong there. He batted .344 (22-for-64) with two home runs and 10 RBI. Wong was 6-for-16 (.375) with runners in scoring position and a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts.
Wong was recalled to St. Louis on May 14 and continued to swing a hot bat. His final two and a half weeks of that month were so good that he was named the National League Rookie of the Month for the entire month of May.
It was not all smooth sailing ahead, however.
On June 2, Wong blasted his first career home run, a grand slam off James Shields of Kansas City. The very next day, he injured his shoulder making a diving play on defense. After trying to play through it for almost three weeks but clearly struggling, he was placed on the DL, retroactive to June 21.
At that point, he was batting .228 with a .556 OPS for the season. A number of fans with especially short attention spans were suggesting Wong was a bust, clamoring for the team to acquire a veteran infielder in trade.
The second baseman apparently did not agree with his critics. As soon as Wong was activated on July 6, he began to hit again. In fact, the rookie hit safely in nine of his first 10 games off the DL, including three doubles, five home runs and eight RBI.
Those weren’t just any games. In important head-to-head contests against division rivals Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, the Cards won five of seven and took two more over the Dodgers during his hot streak. Wong ended the July 7 contest over the Bucs with a walkoff homer.
Wong continued to provide both speed and power to manager Mike Matheny’s lineup down the stretch.
He added his first career pinch-hit home run in another big spot, as his two-run shot off Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole tied the September 1 contest. The Cards went on to win that game, 5-4. With the victory, they took over sole possession of first place for the first time in 2014, a lead they would not relinquish.
From his July 6 healthy return through the end of the season, Wong was first on the Cardinals with 11 stolen bases and second only to Matt Holliday in home runs (with 11) and slugging percentage (.443).
Through all the trials and tribulations, Wong played in 113 regular-season games with St. Louis. He still finished first among all Cardinals in steals with 20 (no other player reached double digits) and was fourth on the team in home runs with 12, just three less than slugger Matt Adams, who had 130 more plate appearances. With a .341 batting average with runners in scoring position and two outs, he placed in the top 10 of the entire National League.
According to Fangraphs, Wong’s Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) of 2.0 was sixth among all Cardinals hitters and first among rookies. Next was Randal Grichuk at 0.6.
Though he started just 100 games at second base, Wong turned 70 double plays, sixth among all National League second basemen. Further, his defensive runs saved above average total of nine was second most on the entire Cardinals team for the full season, behind only Jhonny Peralta.
Yet, his tests continued into October.
After Wong concluded the regular season in a 2-for-22 slump, he was benched in favor of Pete Kozma for Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Kozma had spent most of the first five months of the season in the minors, where he batted an unremarkable .248 with a .702 OPS.
When given the chance again, Wong came through. His post-season highlight had to be the walkoff home run in the Cardinals’ only win against San Francisco in the Championship Series, Game 2.
Overall in the two rounds, Wong went 7-for-29, with all of his hits going for extra bases – three doubles, a triple and three home runs. Only his teammate Matt Carpenter had more long balls, with Wong’s six RBI just behind Adams (seven) and Carpenter (eight) for both the team and NL lead through the CS.
Wong’s post-season slugging mark of .724 topped all Cardinals, while his .991 OPS was second only to Carpenter.
By then, the minor leagues seemed far away, or at least one would hope so.
Congratulations to The Cardinal Nation St. Louis Rookie of the Year for 2014, Kolten Wong.
Link to master article with all 2014 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. That will include our St. Louis season recaps, coming this week.
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