The more home runs Kolten Wong hit at spring training in Arizona, the more people started to wonder.
“Have you been working out?”
Not necessarily, but Wong does have a new source of empowerment.
“I think that dad strength is starting to kick in a little bit,” Wong told new teammate Christian Yelich on social media Tuesday.
A season already defined by change for Wong will hit a life milestone later this season when he and his wife welcome their first child, but first he taps the career reset button. Sporting a familiar jersey No. (16) from a familiar spot in the order, leadoff, the 30-year-old second baseman from Hilo debuts with the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday during Major League Baseball’s opening day.
He thinks his pedigree – from a BIIF standout at Kamehameha to a first-round draft pick out of the University of Hawaii to eight productive seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals – will blend in nicely with a new culture in Milwaukee.
“In St. Louis, everything was done the right way, from small-ball to trying to figure out a way to manufacture runs and playing good defense,” Wong told the media earlier this spring via Zoom. “When you talk about playing the game the right way and doing things the right way, that’s how I was taught how to do it.
“My game is kind of an old-school game with kind of a new-school swag. I think that’s kind of the Brewers’ mentality, and I’m excited to bring that over.”
A free agent for the first time over the winter after the Cardinals declined his option, Wong, – a .261 hitter with a .333 on-base percentage during his career – said he had multiple suitors to choose from. He ultimately decided on a two-year, $18M deal to move 275 miles up the road to join the Cardinals’ NL Central rival.
“It took me a little bit to get my head around the whole thing, obviously, being a Cardinal for as long as I’ve been,” Wong said. “There is a lot of memories, a lot of good things that I created there. But also seeing from across, how the Brewers play, how they go about their business and the type of team this is, it just fits my mold really well.
“It’s a grinding team, a team that just goes out there and competes every single day.”
The best second baseman in the game according to the eye test and defensive metrics, the two-time Gold Glover switches to an organization that is much more prone to use defensive shifts than the Cardinals, who employ more of a traditional framework. The Brewers are more aggressive and deeper into analytics, Wong said.
While appreciating the “Cardinal Way,” he called Milwaukee’s approach the “newer way.” Still, there figures to be an adjustment period, even for a defensive whiz like Wong.
“I’m not a huge fan of shifts, but you know what? That’s part of the game,” he told the Milwaukee Journel-Sentinel. “I think we’ve got to adjust to the game. We’ve got to adjust to the times. Whatever they want me to do, I’m ready to do it.
“I’m excited for this opportunity. If shifting is going to be it, then hey, put me in the best position I can be in.”
Wong looked locked in at the plate in Brewers blue and yellow during the spring, clubbing four home runs in 36 Arizona at-bats, and he’s always felt comfortable hitting at Milwaukee’s American Family Field. In 57 career games at the former Miller Park, Wong is a .308 batter with an .855 OPS.
“I’m excited to play in a park that I know I’ve had success in and I know I’m going to bring my confidence,” he told Major League Baseball Network. “Hopefully, I can add some offense to my defense to make me a full-rounded player.”
Wong remains the Big Island’s only major leaguer entering opening day. Kean Wong (Angels), Kodi Medeiros (White Sox) and Quintin Torres-Costa (Brewers) were nonroster invitees to spring training, but each were reassigned and likely will open the season in the minors.
The Brewers are one six MLB teams never to win a World Series, last reaching the stage in 1982, eight years before Wong was born. He is, however, moving from once contender to another.
Milwaukee is seeking a fourth straight postseason berth after sneaking into the playoffs last year with a 29-31 record despite ranking 27th out of 30 major league teams in runs per game. Hitters up and down their lineup failed to reach their career norms.
Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP, hit just .205 last season after winning batting titles in 2018 and 2019. Keston Hiura batted .212 and had an NL-high 85 strikeouts last year after posting a .938 OPS as a rookie in 2019. Omar Narváez saw his average plunge from .278 in 2019 to .176 last year. Avisaíl García hit just two homers and his average fell from .282 to .238.
All of them showed signs of progress in the preseason. For instance, Yelich batted .393 with a .500 on-base percentage and 1.357 OPS.
Plenty of other Brewers who slumped last year performed well this spring.
Hiura hit .283 with a .935 OPS. Narváez hit .273 with a .415 on-base percentage and 1.051 OPS. García batted .313 with a .930 OPS.
The Brewers believe the additions of Wong and former Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. will add depth to the lineup and boost the defense. They also will have a full season from outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who played just five games last year before opting out.
Whether those hitters can build on the momentum they established in the Cactus League remains uncertain. But it at least should give them some reason for optimism.
“That’s something they can lean on during struggles as much as anything,” manager Craig Counsell told the Associated Press. “There’s going to be struggles. There’s going to be guys that get off to bad starts. But I think all of our guys are in a good enough place and understanding of where they are right now that it’s going to get you back on track a little quicker.”
They’ll get their first chance in Thursday’s opener against the Minnesota Twins.
“I feel like I’m in a good place and where I want to be heading into the season,” Yelich said. “So I’m excited to get things started.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.