The Mets have four first basemen on the field, or so goes my overused joke. Secretly, though, one of them has been performing well with the glove at his non-first-base position this season -- All-Star shoulda starter David Wright. After years of terrible defensive numbers, Wright suddenly is better than scratch at third base.
The easy response is to poo-poo the small sample defensive numbers from the first half and declare Wright unchanged. After all, he was worse than a -10 defender at third base for over 3500 innings between 2009 and 2011, why should he suddenly, at 29, be a better defender?
The tougher response is: it's all about positioning.
One of the nice things about UZR is that it breaks into components. Wright has always been about scratch on the double play -- and is so again this year. He's always been around scratch when it comes to making errors compared to other third basemen in the league -- and is so again this year. The fans have found him around scratch every year in their Fans Scouting Report, and watching him doesn't create the subjective impression that you're watching a butcher at third base.
There is one component of UZR that has contributed over two-thirds of his negative runs over the past three years -- range. It's a key component to UZR of course, as the metric breaks the field into zones in order to make judgements about the range of a player, but it's also one that could have an asterisk attached to it.
UZR does not -- and cannot -- take positioning into account. It's impossible to do so, given the lack of recorded knowledge about the defensive positioning at the beginning of the play, but it's still not done right now. One thought is that the players are ultimately responsible for positioning themselves, so if they don't put themselves in the right place, they should get a demerit. Another thought is that FIELDf/x will solve this by recording before and after positioning. But either way, positioning is currently not recorded for public consumption and therefore is not an input in UZR.
David Wright looked non-plussed when I asked him about his poor defensive metrics. But when I asked him if he'd been working on his defense he nodded, and when I pointed out those same metrics said he'd shown improvement this year, Wright said it was all due to Tim Teufel. "We've been working on positioning," Wright said, "And the first step, since the first step is so important." Wright nodded to the scrunched up piece of paper he was holding -- "Teufel gives me a scouting report before every game."
Defense is a difficult thing to appraise using advanced metrics. From watching, we know that Wright is (at the very least) making the one-handed throw to first on bunts, and that he looks spry in the field. From listening to him, we know that he's working on positioning. From the numbers we know that positioning isn't explicitly taken into account and might have affected his poor numbers in the past. Even now, with subjective information that fits into a hole in our objective data, we don't know if David Wright is as bad as he was the last three years (-12.7 UZR/150 average) or as good as he looks this year (+4.1 UZR/150).
But it is worth something to know that David Wright identified a possible situation, and, with the help of his coaches, is doing something about it. Maybe it will take a while to correctly quantify what that's worth on the field, but on a team that needs veteran leadership, it's certainly the 'right' way to do things.