A sleeker Kolten Wong than the one who hit 18 home runs in his first two seasons at the University of Hawaii greeted us before practice at Les Murakami Stadium this week, as the preseason All-American and his fellow Rainbows completed preparations for tonight’s season opener against Oregon.
One reason he shaved about 10 pounds from the 190 he’s listed at is the need for speed. Wong stole 19 bases last year and 11 as a freshman. He hopes for the green light even more often as new bats that react more like wood than metal signal the "biggest change in college baseball in the last 25 years," according to UH coach Mike Trapasso.
Wong’s always been enthusiastic, but he seems even more excited than usual headed into this season as Hawaii defends its WAC championship. "We’re going to be a sleeper," he said, acknowledging heavy losses to graduation and the draft. "We could surprise a lot of people."
PROSPECTS OFTEN bulk up for their money year, under the reasonable assumption that more bombs translate to a higher spot in the draft. But after taking MVP honors in the prestigious Cape Cod League over the summer, Wong has little to prove as a complete hitter and player.
He’s still going to hit some home runs this season … he’s simply one of those players who has the ability to win a game any way necessary. But the longball won’t be as much of a priority this year throughout college baseball.
Offensive philosophy will change drastically for many teams. For UH, it’s a boon, an enhancement of a strength. The Rainbows have always displayed a penchant for the hit-and-run, bunting, stealing and hitting to the right side.
"We’ve been playing American League-style, sitting around waiting for the three-run homer," Trapasso told the Honolulu Quarterback Club this week. "Now it’s going to be more of a National League game."
By "we" Trapasso meant college baseball in general. UH — in large part playing to its pitcher-friendly home stadium — has always been proficient at small ball. This was true even when the lineup featured future major league sluggers such as Joey Meyer and Glenn Braggs.
Trapasso loves the crooked numbers as much as any coach, but his core philosophy has always been one base at a time, just like Les Murakami before him. There will be no drastic learning curve.
WONG IS AS versatile defensively as he is multifaceted offensively. Second base is his natural position, the one he enjoys the most and where he’ll likely end up as a pro. But he’s right at home at catcher, which he played throughout high school, and is prepared to do so this season when needed.
If I chose an all-time UH baseball team right now, utility player would be one of the toughest decisions. I’d have to consider Billy Blanchette (pitcher, first base) and Larry Gonzales (pitcher, catcher). But it’d be a tie for first team, between Wong (center field, second base) and Chuck Jackson (third base, outfield). If Wong does a lot of work behind the plate this year, that breaks the tie.
At 6-feet, Jackson is 3 inches taller than Wong, but his offensive style was similar: a lot of shots to the gaps, aggressive use of speed and pretty good pop. And defensive flexibility helped him get to the majors, as it could for Wong.
"Being able to play multiple positions will extend your potential for a career," said Jackson, who played 12 pro seasons, including parts of three in the majors with the Astros and Rangers. "Personally, I believe Kolten will be better than I ever was. He is a tremendous talent. I have heard some real buzz."
The buzz around college baseball this year will likely be about a decline in homers. But that won’t hurt Kolten Wong’s productivity and professional marketability — or his team’s chances for another deep run into the postseason.