(Bumped from FanPosts. Check out more of Craig's work at Sabometrics.)
Recently I was reading Mark Simon’s article "Finding the Wright Combination" and while it was an interesting read, I’m not sure that it really digs deep enough into David Wright’s struggles at the plate. This has been one of the most discussed topics among Mets fans all season long and everyone seems to realize that while Wright is still being productive overall he just doesn’t look comfortable while hitting. I was hoping Wright would correct himself, stop striking out so much and that the issue would die down. Unfortunately it hasn’t and I think it’s time to investigate.
Wright’s lack of two strike hits, focused on by Simon, might be evidence that he is struggling, but I think we can find more significant proof. To focus only on two strike batting average (especially breaking it down even more and looking at two strike hits on pitches outside the strike zone) is overlooking a lot of data and giving ourselves way too small a sample size.
Batting average is an extremely unreliable statistic, one which requires over one full seasons worth of at bats to stabilize. Wright did have a higher two strike batting average in 2006 (.281) than in 2009 (.188) but I’m not sure that you can really draw any conclusions about his approach or ability based on this.
The rest can be accounted for by Wright’s increased strikeout percentage (in 2009 he struck out in 44.6% of the time when he reached two strikes while in 2006 he only struck out 35.9% of the time.) That’s about 27 extra at bats where Wright did not put the ball in play. If his BABIP held at .350 he’d have had another 9 or 10 hits. Now his 2006 and his 2009 look pretty much identical.
In 2010 Wright’s BABIP on two strikes is .364. He has 13 hits in 88 at bats and his strikeout rate is up to 51.4% of his two strike at bats. Strikeouts are a large part of the reason why he is hitting only .144 with two strikes. This is not really news as everyone knows that Wright has been striking out more. The real question is: why?
One of the most important things to realize is that Wright is not just struggling once he gets to two strike counts. Mark noted that Wright is hitting .444 before two strikes which is very close to the .439 he hit in non-two strike situations in 2007. This might make it seem like Wright is the same hitter before two strikes, but he’s not. The key thing to realize is that this statistic only includes at bats if they end before two strikes, which means that Wright had to put the ball in play. If Wright was ending the same percentage of his plate appearances with two strikes this would be a more valid comparison. However if we look at the percentage of his plate appearances which reached two strike counts we can see that this is not the case.
David is getting himself into two strike counts more frequently this year than ever before. Wright is not only hitting poorly with two strikes he is compounding the problem by putting himself in that situation more often.
Partly this is due to a decrease in contact rate. This is true across all counts as we can see below.
Unfortunately, this is far more worrying than Mark Simon's original prognosis. If David’s problem was his batting average on two strike counts then much of his struggle could be chalked up to luck. A lowered ability to make contact when swinging is more of a reflection of skill and this is where Wright has really been struggling. Breaking it down by the handedness of the pitcher shows us that while he is struggling against all pitchers he is struggling more against right handed pitchers.
Examining Wright’s batting eye scores between 2008 and 2009 adds another interesting layer to this story. Most batters I’ve looked at do not exhibit large platoon splits in batting eye. This was true of Wright in 2008 but in 2009 he there was a huge difference in his batting eye scores by pitcher handedness. He adopted much better swing behavior against lefties than righties in 2009. He did manage to cut his rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone against righties by about 4% but he had a 14% decrease in swinging at pitches in the strike zone. This is not a positive tradeoff.
Based on these batting eye scores the root of Wright’s problems could be with his perception of pitches. He seemingly lost a lot of his ability to judge pitches thrown by righties in 2009. Does he need to get his eyes checked, as many fans have suggested? It's hard to say for sure but I can’t think of any reason why poor eyesight would only have an effect against right handed pitchers.
Wright did see a decrease in contact percentage after he was hit in the head by a Matt Cain fastball last year. Perhaps comfort at the plate is a factor. If this was the case, however, I would expect him to get more comfortable as time goes by and unfortunately his contact problems have gotten worse. My instinct is that Wright is pressing which is causing his struggles. His power outage last year put a lot of pressure on him to hit more home runs and while he has done that it seems like it has affected both his swing and his mindset.
The other hypothesis which I've heard is that pitchers are pitching to him differently, coming high and tight to make him uncomfortable and then going outside to finish him off. This could be the case and I plan to do an analysis of at my site sometime soon. Either way the fact that Wright has still been the Mets most productive batter, despite his struggles, speaks to his enormous talent.
The Mets need David Wright to return to his 2007-2008 form. In order to do this he must start seeing pitches better and making more contact. Hopefully he will figure things out, cut down on the strikeouts and let the hits come naturally.