When you grow up in Hawaii, you surf. It’s practically in your DNA. And sure, Springfield Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong knows how to surf. But it’s not his strength.
In the Hammons Field batting cage before a game against the San Antonio Missions, the Hawaii native was smoking lines drives to all fields. All were laser beams, just like if a pitcher as zipping fastballs from home plate to the outfield grass. But after he had just squared up 7 consecutive batting practice fastballs, he popped up the last pitch of his round. It didn’t leave the cage. He took the bat in his right hand and violently threw the barrel into his left, showing his disgust without smashing the wood down on the ground, destroying his bat.
On his next turn, it was another display of humming frozen ropes. But this time, it was highlighted with a home run over the right center field wall. He showed no emotion — that’s what he meant to do.
“Yeah, I’m a perfectionist, because I know I can do it,” Wong said. “I’ve been blessed with success and while I know that I’ve been blessed with talent, I never want to waste any of it because of how hard I’ve worked. Everyone else surfed. I played baseball with my father (Kaha Wong, who played a few seasons of minor league ball).”
Maybe it’s because the speed of life in Hawaii is different than most places in the United States, but Wong is patient guy, even though it seems like the St. Louis Cardinals’ plan for him isn’t.
Wong has only been the St. Louis Cardinals’ property for 12 months after he was the club’s first-round pick last summer, signing for $1.3 million. Wong’s batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage numbers are promotion-worthy: .299/.372/.442. It goes hand-in-hand with the way he blazed through Low-A Quad Cities last year (.335/.401/.510 in 194 at-bats) immediately after posting .378/.483/.560 in 209 at-bats at the University of Hawaii. As a pure hitter with a developing defensive game, he’s justified the fans and pundits barking for a Triple-A promotion.
While he admits he thinks about making it to the big leagues as soon as possible — watching Triple-A and big-league roster moves, with many guys he became friends with while at big-league spring training this year — he’s not concerned. He knows he’s on a fast track, but doesn’t want to miss a detail. Patience.
What we see from the stands is a guy who sprays the ball gap to gap and obliterates the occasional mistake pitch on top of the Hammons Field training facility. But, what his hitting coach sees is much more impressive than that.
“He has one of the most advanced approaches of any player I’ve ever seen at Double-A,” Springfield Cardinals’ hitting coach Phil Wellman said. “The two most advanced hitters I’ve seen (at Double-A) were (Atlanta Braves All-Star catcher) Brian McCann and (current KC Royals outfielder) Jeff Francoeur. Both did it in different ways, but Wong is just as advanced as they were. For him, his maturity at the plate makes him stand out.”
SGF manager Mike Shildt agrees. “Guys are going to have trouble, but the best ones have a feel for what they’re doing,” he said. “He has the ability to self-correct. These guys are getting pitched differently by everyone, every series. (Wong) can feel it, slow it down and understand what works for him.”
That’s why Wong was taken 22nd overall. Like any other professional draft, teams select on potential. Many saw Wong as an every day major league second baseman one to plug into the big-league system sooner rather than later. Sometimes, that’s a backhanded compliment. See, the most athletic and high-ceiling player are generally are drafted at catcher, shortstop and center field, and as they are unable to field those positions, they transition throughout the diamond. Most second baseman that are first-round picks end up there, instead of being taken there.
But, at 5-foot-9, Wong will only play second base. That presents an entire new set of expectations and pressure — as in, he’d better justify the selection as soon as possible.
“It meant a lot to me for the Cardinals to have faith in me,” the 21-year-old Wong said. “That’s why I wanted to sign so soon, to show them I was serious and to get to the big leagues as soon as I could.”
Still, what about the pressure? “I try to not let it get to me. As soon as I start to rush through it, I won’t be getting any better. That’s what I’m here to do, to be the best player I can be.”
Defense is often the forgotten equation in player development, especially when players like Wong seem to be able to get on base with ease. However, the coaching staff said while Wong’s defense isn’t perfect, his leadership on the field is a big part of why the SGF Cards lead the Texas League in double plays turned.
Back to his batting practice sessions, a lot of what Shildt sees relates to Wong’s lack of surfing acumen. At one of his father’s minor league games as a 10-year old, Wong told his dad he’d made his mind up on what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
“I told him I wanted to be a professional ballplayer. I know everyone says that, but I meant it. It feels good to be where I’m at. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. I take this seriously.”