Wong already feels back to his Gold Glove self

February 24th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Well before he spent much time with his new teammates, Kolten Wong became even more acclimated with what Mariners infielders have formed a working relationship with since infield coach Perry Hill arrived in 2019.

The wall.

The massive exterior to Seattle’s Spring Training facility reads “Memorable” with pictures of franchise icons. But the concrete structure has an even grander functionality as the quite literal backdrop where Hill spends most mornings instilling fundamental coaching with one to two infielders during early work.

“We literally took an hour taking ground balls off the cement,” Wong said. “And next thing I knew, I felt like I was back to my Gold Glove self.”

Wong is a two-time winner of the Majors' most prestigious defensive award, in 2019 and ‘20. He’s also Seattle’s new second baseman, arriving in a December trade with the Brewers that sent Jesse Winker and Abraham Toro to Milwaukee, one of the Mariners’ headlining moves this offseason. Wong represents a big offensive upgrade at the position from Adam Frazier and has played on six postseason teams over his nine full seasons.

But the defense -- which took a big dip last season -- is his biggest priority this spring. So, he arrived in early February and began working with Hill, who’s been in pro coaching since 1984 and who has been hoping to coach Wong since as long as five years ago when Hill was with the Marlins.

“I didn't want to wait for Spring Training,” Wong said. “I didn't want to wait around and waste my time. I felt like if Perry’s down here and I put in work with him, let's start as soon as possible.”

Wong in 2022 was worth minus-10 outs above average and minus-7 fielding runs prevented, per Statcast, both second-worst among 38 qualified second basemen. Only once prior, in ‘17, had he been in the negative with either metric. A right calf strain suffered in June may have contributed to the production decline, but steering away from his old self was also a culprit.

“It wasn't really losing trust in my hands; it was being too dependent on my footwork,” Wong said. “Trying to use too many steps to get in the perfect position, trying to chop my steps so that I was in the right position to go right-left, instead of just being direct to the baseball and allowing the baseball to tell you.

“I was basically trying to create the best hop I could instead of understanding that that's going to happen by attacking [the baseball] and making the step back or attacking and getting that short hop.”

That’s where the wall -- among many other coaching components -- has come into play.

“It's just hard for me to slow down sometimes,” Wong said. “Like my feet just want to go so quick and everything. I feel like I can just be so fast and clean, and that's usually my problem. Perry told me, 'You're very quick twitch, slow the heck down.’ I'm going to remember that. I might [write] that in my glove next time. He's always telling me, 'Slow down, slow down, slow down,' and the slower I'm getting, the cleaner it's getting. ... Now, it's under control.”

The quick-footed Wong also could be a poster boy among second basemen benefitting from new rules for 2023 curbing the shift, not having to move all over and into the outfield. It’s one of many reasons the Mariners are confident that Wong’s glove will rebound, and it’s shown early in camp. The speed is still there, but the fluidity and cleanliness of his deliveries has stood out.

But Seattle -- which fell short of Milwaukee’s offer for Wong in free agency two years ago -- acquired him even more so for his bat, which has been among the most productive at the position since. Wong hit .262/.337/.439 (.776 OPS) over the past two seasons with a combined 29 homers and was worth 113 wRC+ and 5.0 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs, seventh- and 10th-best at the position among players with at least 900 plate appearances, respectively. For contrast, the Mariners received 76 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR from their second basemen in that stretch, fifth- and third-worst.

Seattle made a pointed objective to improve its lineup, and second base was the most obvious spot to address.

“He's capable of a lot,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who oversaw Wong the past two years. “He's capable of brilliant defense. He's capable of being a plus-plus hitter in the lineup and hitting in multiple spots in the lineup. And he's been in a lot of big baseball games -- and that's always a good thing."