(Bumped from FanPosts. -- James)
This post is in part a retraction of a certain under-considered argument I made under another post on the prospects of David Wright returning to the Mets. It elicited a bit of a reaction to which I wanted to reply at some length.
I made an argument that Wright should not be held at a premium based on sentimental value because he was no longer on a Hall of Fame career arc. The main retorts was that the Hall of Fame is an arbitrary threshold, that he was actually ahead of Chipper Jones' pace in terms of total value by age, and that I was talking like Mike Francesca, amongst others. Rethinking the matter, I here issue certain qualified concessions to these objections.
Wright's Actual Cumulative Value in Context:
My most severe error was to overestimate rather drastically how badly Wright's slump from 2009-2011 had depressed his overall career arc. Despite his underperformance and injuries those three years, Wright is still slightly ahead of Chipper Jones and even late-starter Wade Boggs, in terms of WAR accumulated by age as of the end of 2012.
Simply looking at accumulated WAR does not provide an adequate assessment of Wright's career to date, either in isolation or relative to his peers; much less does it provide sufficient information to develop any reasonable idea of what to expect of Wright going forward. Consider this counter-factual example. Had David Wright put up another disappointing year in 2012, such as an exact replica of 2010 he would have been four years removed from the last season in which he posted a WAR above 4, during which span he would have averaged somewhat above 3 WAR per season; and in that case, nobody in their right mind would be talking about cutting David Wright a Superstar Contract, nor would anyone in their right mind have refused a Zack Wheeler for David Wright if such a player became available in a trade in 2013. The token value of David Wright, Lifelong Met would have been reduced to virtually nil, and he would have fallen from being the unshakeable face of the franchise to a fairly strong asset at third base (well north of a notch--in fact almost two notches!--above average) that should be treated as any other asset.
And yet, he would still have been ahead of Chipper Jones in overall WAR by age, and he would still be the Mets' all-time most valuable position player. He's been that since he was 27.
This is not particularly perplexing, as the phenomenon would be explained by the fact that Wright's WAR total--again, in this counter-factual scenario--would have been propped up by the David Wright of 2004 to 2008, a player who would have been acknowledged universally as long since vanished and unlikely to reappear. Add to this the fact that the Mets' highly underwhelming record of developing and maintaining high-caliber position players, and you have your default Most Valuable Met Position Player.
The point of all this talk of counter-factual scenarios is to underscore just how crucial David Wright's 2012 season was to re-establishing his status as a player, and to demonstrate how misleading it can be simply to look at cumulative WAR statistics without considering their context. Consider: one of the more stern rebukes of my bit of venting came in the following formulation: "Indeed, Wright should have been Mike Schmidt. Now he's more of a Chipper Jones or Scott Rolen. What a bust! TRAID".
It was a fairly strong argument, but it should be noted that this argument would remain applicable even if Wright had confirmed his descent into Above-Average Limbo with a merely Above Average 2012. In that case, the response would have been obvious: David Wright went from being a cumulative George Brett in 2008 to being a cumulative Chipper Jones in 2012 by being Placido Polanco in between. His performance, going forward, is much more likely to replicate that of Aramis Ramirez--if you want to be (very) charitable--or Mike Lowell circa 2001--if you want to be less charitable--than that of Chipper Jones or Scott Rolen.
Speaking of being uncharitable, here is a WAR graph showing how David Wright compares, career-wise, to another player who would have been the Most Valuable Met Position Player of All Time (MVMPPoAT) before he turned 30, if he had only been a Met: Chuck Knoblauch.
Notice Wright's third best season. That's this season, 2012. Drop that to our counter-factual 2012 season (again, which is the same as Wright's 2010 season) and the advantage of our MVMPPoAT over Knoblauch diminishes even further.
Looking once again at Wright vs. Knoblauch as a comp, here is accumulated WAR by age.
For me, this graph shows most starkly how crucial Wright's resurgence in 2012 was to the resurrection of his status as a franchise player. If you once again substitute his 2010 value for his 2012 value, his career would have almost asymptotically approached Knoblauch's, with a slightly higher peak and his leftward position in his age-level curve accounting for all of Wright's advantage. To further illustrate the point: here is the same graph with a few additional players added to the chart.
These players all have one thing in common: they have all posted more value in terms of WAR than any position player has ever posted as a Met other than David Wright. Placido Polanco, if he were to have replaced David Wright as a career Met, would have been the MVMPPoAT, as would have such luminaries as Carnie Lansford and J.D. Drew.
Again, we see how pivotal Wright's 2012 was in re-establishing his status as a franchise player. For the prior three years, the slope of his arc (the rate at which he adds value from year to year) looked a lot more like that of Polanco than Chipper Jones or George Brett, who Dubs led by a comfortable margin prior to 2009. Of course, his cumulative value eclipses that of Polanco, but when dealing roster decisions, it is future performance that matters, and under-performing Placido Polanco for 4 consecutive years does not exactly scream Superstar Contract, and appealing to David Wright's token value as the Greatest of all Met position players would have about the same force as it would if you were to replace the name "David Wright" with that of "Chuck Knoblauch". Stevie Wonder might be the greatest musical force alive today. Who expects him to release anything comparable to Innervisions any time soon?
But this is all counter-factual, isn't it? Wright did come back to form in 2012, right?
The reason for the questions surrounding Wright were summed up adequately by Dave Cameron at Fangraphs. There, he notes that what makes it so difficult to decide what to do with Dubs is that he is now impossible to project. The player who was once hailed by Tim Marchman (remember him?) for being "freakishly consistent" has become a Jekyll and Hyde of the Majors. Had he continued his run of mediocrity in 2012, we would at least better know what to expect. Had he followed his epic first half of 2012 with a plausibly good (with the bat) second half, we could more confidently project at least a partial return to Wright's old standards of performance. As Paul Swyden mentioned at Fangraphs:
"Combine the stress fracture in his lower back that he sustained last season with the fact that he entered 2012 a full three years removed from his last seven-win season, and it was fair to wonder if the notion of "David Wright, superstar" had run its course. But he has rung the bell in resounding fashion this season, putting up a season commensurate with his 2007-08 peak."
He wrote this before Wright's dismal offensive second half, further underscoring why it is so difficult to determine what to do with him. David Wright, frankly, has a tendency to make monkeys out of enthusiasts and skeptics alike. The question with Wright is: who will ultimately be the monkey's uncle, and how much money are you willing to bet that it's not going to be you?
I will not bore readers with details regarding the decline of Wright's second half production. Cameron, in his article lays them out more than adequately. Wright's most stable peripherals, Contact%, Z-Swing % O-Swing%, etc. have been so confoundingly erratic that you cannot even claim that they are consistently erratic. They stabilize in one threshold for months before violently shifting to another. These are not natural variances in performance to be expected of a player with a reasonably stable (though obviously not static) true talent level, and it's not really useful to pretend they are. They indicate real and unpredictable shifts in true ability which come from real, though unknown causes, that may lie in approach, or conditioning, or psychology, or what have you. This in turn makes it difficult to assess which David Wright will show up in any given game, month, or year. Wright's overall numbers in 2012, like his career totals, do not tell the whole story unless they are seen in context. They include a mid-season peripheral shift that creates additional uncertainty on top of the already risky proposition of giving a large contract to a player on the wrong side of thirty.
Adding to this haze of doubt and confusion is the fact that it is not just Wright who has put himself in a Crossroads this year. The Mets themselves, have to make a decision as to where they wish to take their franchise, because at this point, starting over from scratch is as viable an option as any. While Wright has yet to prove that he can consistently be close to what he once was, the Mets have yet to decide if their plans leave any room for him, even if he can. With no clear-cut expectations of Wright's performance and no clear-cut notions as to how the Mets will approach their future, there is virtually no aspect of this team about which anyone could make any prediction or suggestion which we could hold in any confidence.
Cameron's solution is similar to mine. He says take the option, wait another year and see if Wright's comeback is real. Let's see if the David Wright of April through July makes another appearance in 2013, because we've all seen far too much of the David Wright of August and September these last three years to take any chances.
I say that the decision is best left in the hands of our GM, which is truly something that I can rejoice in saying, because it hasn't been the case for a long time. Alderson knows how to discount for risk, how to account for sentiment without indulging in sentimentality, and how to develop a strategy and consistently stick to it, all of which were glaring liabilities in the last Met administration. I can say that I'd be comfortable with whatever decision is made, unless the Wilpons are too cheap even to pony up Wright's 1 year option based purely on raw cost, which would not be forgivable.
Our best-case scenario remains that Wright stays in New York and regains some semblance of his former stature before his inevitable decline. Should this happen, Dubs should join Ron Santo and Bobby Grich as infielders who were robbed of a chance to see themselves enshrined in the Hall of Fame in their lifetimes because of the limitless ignorance of the voters, and in particular the absurdly inflated standards they maintain for third basemen. I leave AA readers with a chart of hope.