BenFred: Wong is a perfect test case for gauging the Shildt Effect

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I’ll take Kolten Wong.

Dexter Fowler is a popular choice.

Maybe newly promoted hitting coaches Mark Budaska and George Greer will unlock Marcell Ozuna’s missing power.

And there is a chance that Tommy Pham’s All-Star break visit with his personal hitting guru — the mysterious figure known only as “Sosa” — helps Pham snap back into the 2017 version of himself at the plate.

But when I was asked recently which Cardinals player I think is most likely to surge under new interim manager Mike Shildt, my answer was Wong.

The start of the Cardinals’ second half is littered with compelling story lines. Buy, or sell. Keep, or trade. Remove Shildt’s interim tag, or look elsewhere for the manager for 2019 and beyond. Answers will be influenced by performance. With eight games against the first-place Cubs in the next 13, some big decisions should be formed by the end of July.

The firing of Mike Matheny was accompanied by a persistent message from chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. This team, they told us, is too talented to be entering the second half in third place with a record of 48-46. While firing Matheny and his hitting coaches was the easiest way to shake things up, we were asked to believe that it was also the best way. That belief will be challenged, and should be, if the team plays the same brand of baseball under Shildt. How the players respond to the interim manager’s leadership will heavily influence how this team looks in the future.

Shildt’s players have said all the right things.

“I think I speak for everyone in the clubhouse when I say, we think he’s ready,” Jedd Gyorko said before the Cardinals won their first game under Shildt. “We’re gonna play our butts off for him and we look forward to playing for him.”

Perhaps none more than Wong.

If we know anything about the second baseman by now, it’s that he wears his heart on his sleeve. Over the years, his fluctuations between fire and frustration have made things hard for him at times. This season, he seems to have found a good speed to cruise at, despite a terribly slow offensive start and not knowing if he will be in or out of the lineup. Shildt’s promotion has the potential to increase his impact.

Shildt has said he wants to “send the group of guys out there that we feel like can be regular players for us” and will shoot for a lineup that “we are going to run out there and try to have some continuity with.” Another quote to not overlook: “I think we have been giving guys opportunities all year,” Shildt said. “We are looking for guys to maybe run with some of them. My job is to put guys in a position to succeed. Players play the game. Step back and let them do it.”

Shildt has been asked to prioritize cleaning up the team’s disappointing defense and baserunning. Playing Wong helps both of those goals. Shildt even hit Wong sixth in his first game making the lineup, because he wanted his speed and left-handed swing mixing up a right-handed-heavy bunch.

Wong has started 63 of the Cardinals’ 94 games this season. The Cardinals are 47-40 when he plays, and 33-30 when he starts. With 14 Defensive Runs Saved, he is the best defensive second baseman in baseball this season, according to Fielding Bible. And while his .213 average, .304 on-base percentage and .361 slugging percentage have him headed for his worst OPS (.665) of his major league career, he slashed .210/.319/.387 in June and has improved to .325/.364/.550 in July. And now he’s playing for a manager he has known since he was in the minors, a man he has praised for always having his back.

Wong’s relationship with Matheny was well-documented. Ups and downs. Highs and lows. There was the pick-off, the failed outfield experiment, the platoon fallout of spring training 2017.

The second baseman had nothing but praise for the former manager after he was fired. Instead he stuck to the theme that circulated among players via text messages after they learned the news. He shouldered the blame.

But Wong did share something when it came to Shildt. He described learning of Shildt’s promotion as seeing light on a dark day.

“The one thing I can tell you about this dude is that he cares, and he pays attention,” Wong said. “He always puts in the work. This guy, from day one, when I was in Double A, I knew he was an amazing man because of how he could communicate with us and talk with us. No matter what, he always had our back.”

“A lot of guys in here know who he is. We all know what kind of manager he is, how he will fight for everybody. He’s not going to be the kind of guy to just leave you out there. Mike (Shildt) has been that guy since day one, ever since I met him. He’s always been true to everybody. He’s not going to B.S. you. He’s going to make sure you know exactly where he’s coming from, and if you have any problems, step into his office. He’s going to dish it out, but he’s always there to take it.”

Another quote that should not be overlooked: “Having a different approach to the game is something that is going to be huge,” Wong said. “Mike (Shildt) is the kind of guy who is just going to let you go out there and just play. He doesn’t want to come in and take away the light or anything like that. He’s going to let you go out there and play.”

Six seasons have taught us that Wong tends to play his best baseball when he a) feels he is believed in and b) is playing his game instead of trying to be something he’s not. His defense has been spectacular. His offense is coming around. And now he’s playing for a manager he learned in the minor leagues that he “wanted to fight for.” By the way, Wong is slashing .353/.476/.647 against the Cubs this season.

Yeah, I’ll take Kolten Wong.

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