Kolten Wong has been the National League's best second baseman for two years running but this spring will nonetheless be a learning process for the two-time Gold Glove winner, who signed a two-year, $18 million free agent deal with the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this month.
He'll have to undergo the usual adjustment process of meeting his new teammates and new coaches while adjusting to a new facility in a new state, but more important than all of that, he'll have to learn the Brewers' way of doing things; specifically, the Brewers' penchant for using defensive shifts.
Wong spent his first eight big league seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, who tended to use more traditional defensive alignments under mangers Mike Matheny and Mike Shildt. Last season, the Cardinals used a shift 376 times against 1,981 opponent plate appearances, which marked the third-lowest shift rate in all of baseball at 19%.
The Brewers, conversely, employed a shift 44.4% of the time, the fourth-highest rate in all of baseball, and that's not likely to change in 2021.
"It's kind of two different ways of playing the game," Wong said. "Coming from the Cardinals we were old school and we did things a certain way. I'm excited to learn from these guys, see how they look at the game and how they're attacking the game and how that can work for me."
Wong doesn't have the offensive résumé that fans tend to salivate over during hot stove season. A .261 career hitter, Wong batted .265 last season for St. Louis with a home run, 16 RBIs and a .675 OPS.
But his grind-it-out approach at the plate, making pitchers work deep into counts, has paid off to the tune of a .333 career on-base percentage, making Wong an ideal candidate to leadoff Milwaukee's lineup. His ability to get on base generates the type of pressure on opposing pitchers that manager Craig Counsell says leads to offensive success, and at the same time Wong's defensive abilities help prevent opposing teams from putting that very same pressure on Milwaukee's pitchers.
"There's less pitches thrown per inning," Counsell said. "That has the residual effect that it can get your starter and extra inning or a reliever two innings instead of one inning because there's less pitches thrown and then, (defense) flat-out keeps runs off the board."
With Wong patrolling second, Orlando Arcia or Luis Urias at short and Lorenzo Cain in center, the Brewers' up-the-middle defense has the potential to be among the best in baseball this season which, in turn, could help the Brewers' pitching staff take a step forward while also taking pressure off the offense.
"Defensively is where we improved most during the offseason," Counsell said. "The tricky thing about defense is that it’s not always as in-your-face as a two-run homer to tell you that it helped you. That two-run homer is kind of in your face. The defensive play feels like it has this more subtle effect on games and almost a carryover effect on games.”