It isn’t news that David Wright is having a bad year at the plate. It hasn't been fun to watch, and it has raised concerns that the current, diminished version of Wright might be here to stay. Quite frankly, this is a frightening proposition to consider, particularly since the Mets are on the sharp, sharp hook for the remainder of Wright’s huge contract; and for a cash-strapped franchise that is struggling to return to relevance and contention, such a contract for an aging, barely-average player would present a major problem, to say the least.
Of course, no one can possibly know for certain what the future holds for David Wright. On the one hand, his age, a not-insignificant factor, is working against him, as is the fact that he fields a difficult position in which varying degrees of physical punishment are inevitable.
On the other hand, Wright has been one of the best players in the National League throughout his career. He has a long track record of success, to the point where he is probably several good seasons away from being a future Hall of Famer.
I want to give Wright the benefit of the doubt, but I acknowledge that skepticism—if not outright pessimism—concerning his value as a player in seasons to come may be warranted. As such, I decided to examine the data to seek a root-cause explanation of Wright’s crummy season, with the hopes of uncovering something encouraging or, at the least, instructive.
Methodology and Analysis
For starters, I parked myself on David Wright’s Fangraphs page. A cursory glance at the dashboard reveals the impetus for this article: He’s having a bad (for him) season, as evidenced by basically every measure in the chart.
One thing that really stands out is Wright’s deflated walk rate, which, at 7.6 percent, is well below both his career average of 11.0 percent and last year’s 11.2 percent. Another red flag is his precipitous drop-off in Isolated Power (ISO), which sits at a paltry .105 for the season; it feels starker yet when considering his career ISO of .197 and last year’s .207. In sum here, Wright has been walking less and hitting for much less power than he has in the past—not a good combination.
I figured, among other things, that these developments could indicate that Wright’s selectivity has taken a nose dive, so I scrolled down to examine his batted ball and plate discipline numbers.
Batted ball rates for Dubs, while a bit of a mixed bag leaning slightly on the negative side, proved inconclusive. To wit, Wright is hitting more ground balls than usual—40.1 percent versus his career rate of 38.7 percent—but that alone isn't necessarily a harbinger of doom. Consider his excellent 2012 season, in which he racked up a career-high 42.4 percent ground ball rate en route to a 141 wRC+.
Interestingly, Wright’s line drive rate is actually higher this season at 23.3 percent than it was either last year (22.9%) or his career mark (22.6%). Taken alone, that’s a positive development, and it certainly doesn't explain his down year at the plate.
Most damning of the batted ball numbers, perhaps, is Wright’s home runs per fly ball rate, which at 5.6 percent is the lowest of his career. This is way down from the 13.0 percent he turned in last year and the 13.1 percent he has averaged for his career. The only season in which he even approached such a low rate was his first "down" season of 2009, when he turned in a 6.9 percent rate in that category.
Duly depressed, I scrolled down to examine Wright’s plate discipline, imagining that there, finally, I would find discrepancies that would indicate the root cause of Wright’s problems this year. I hoped for that, actually, because it would mean—in theory, anyway—that Wright’s issues at the plate are obvious and correctable.
Confound it all, it was another mixed bag. Granted, Wright is swinging more often at pitches outside the strike zone this season (27.4%) than he has for his career (23.2%). But he’s only a tick worse in that regard than he was during last year’s excellent campaign (26.4%). So while it would probably be a good thing if Wright chased fewer pitches outside the zone, it can hardly be pointed to as the unequivocal cause of his woes this season.
Wright’s other swing rates aren't significantly off from either last year’s or his career rates, so I won’t linger there. I will note that Wright’s contact rate, which measures the "total percentage of contact made when swinging at all pitches," is, at 82.4 percent, very slightly lower than his 2013 mark (83.4%) but not his career mark (82.3%).
In short, this is all pretty inconclusive. Considered as a whole, I could see how Wright’s batted ball and plate discipline rates this season might explain some drop-off in performance, but not the precipitous decline he’s experienced. That’s pretty frustrating from an analytic perspective.
So, instead of pausing to reflect on what I had learned up to this point in my analysis, I charged forward, steadfast in my conviction that there had to be a demonstrable root cause for Wright’s crummy season. This unchecked belief, heavily buttressed by my hope, zeal, and frustration, all but guaranteed I was going to seize upon something—anything—as the elusive cause, however incorrect.
My misguided eureka moment occurred in PITCHf/x pitch velocity, which indicated that Wright is, for the most part, facing the fastest pitches of his career. I decided that had to be it, or close to it. Of course, I knew Wright hasn't been alone in experiencing this phenomenon, as it is established that pitch speed has been increasing in recent years throughout MLB. But I also knew that bat speed is a critical element of a player’s power; and although I didn't have bat speed data at my disposal, I concluded that Wright must somehow be having a difficult time adjusting to this higher-velocity environment.
It almost sounds plausible, which is what made it even more misguided. (Recall the axiom that the most powerful and destructive lies often contain elements of truth.) As my intrepid editor pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that Wright, immediately following of one of the very best seasons of his career, simply cannot catch up to baseballs.
Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a lot of questions, unfortunately. I don’t think David Wright’s shoulder injury is an adequate explanation for his performance. After all, Wright wasn't exactly tearing it up prior to his shoulder injury: From the beginning of the season through June 26, the last game he played before missing time due to the injury, he put up a sub-par .277/.333/.396 and 107 wRC+. In other words, he really has struggled all season long.
Maybe Wright’s been dealing with physical ailments since spring training. That seems plausible, as his batted ball rates indicate that he should be hitting the ball as hard and as far as he usually does; maybe something is sapping his ability to generate power. Or maybe his protracted slump has affected him psychologically to the point where it is manifesting in altered, counterproductive behaviors. Maybe Wright is over the hill, and this really is the version of the player we can expect going forward. Maybe it’s all of the above.
Or maybe he’s just having a rough year—it happens to lots of players—and he’ll be fine.
My bet, as an admittedly hopeful, biased onlooker, is on the latter.
It is true that David Wright is on the wrong side of 30, a time when production begins to drop for most players. So yes, maybe Wright really is over the hill. I’m not buying that, though—not quite yet. Wright has set the bar very high for himself, such that even average turns of performance are startling. However, since the overall body of evidence demonstrates he is a consistently excellent player, I expect him to return to some form of excellence, whether it occurs before season’s end or in 2015.
I sure do hope I’m right.