Sunday, August 31, 2014

What's Wrong With Wright?

As the Mets play out the string on another noncompetitive season, half a game out of last place in the NL East and 10 below .500 entering play today, their struggles seem to have infected David Wright, their star third baseman. An All-Star each of the past two years, Wright's been one of baseball's five best players since he debuted in 2004. He's consistently hit for power and average, gets on base, and runs the bases well, all while offering good defense at a demanding position and serving as the face of New York's other baseball franchise.

This year, at the age of 31, he hasn't been doing any of those things. He's scuffling along at .263/.322/.363, well below his established career standards. He only has eight home runs and 56 RBI after averaging 22 and 88 over his first 10 seasons, and his ISo. this year isn't even half of what it was last year. He's been caught stealing nearly as many times (5) as he's been successful (6).

His walk rate--over 10 percent every year except his first--has fallen beneath 8 percent. And his strikeout rate--between 16 and 17 percent the last two years--has jumped to over 18 percent. After homering once every 23.3 at-bats prior to this season, he's gone deep just once every 62.4 at-bats in 2014.

Put it all together and Wright's on track for the worst non-injury affected offensive campaign of his career. My question is: why?

One reason is that Wright's BABiP, which traditionally has been north of .340, has fallen to .313 this year. Still better than the league average, but below average by his personal standards. If anything, Wright's BABiP should actually be higher than last year's, as he's hitting more line drives and ground balls, both of which can be expected to turn into hits more often than fly balls and pop-ups, of which Wright is hitting fewer this year. So yeah, there's definitely some bad luck in there. Give Wright his standard .340 BABiP and his average jumps to .290.

Still, what has to be more concerning for the Mets (who have Wright under contract through 2020, during which time they owe him $107 million) is his sudden loss of power. With the exception of 2009, when Citi Field opened, and 2011, when Wright was hurt, he has always provided big-time power numbers. His career slugging percentage was .506 through the end of last year, and a healthy Wright could always be counted on to supply 20-30 home runs and around 100 RBI.

This year Wright's been (mostly) healthy, playing in all but 10 of the Mets' games thus far. but the power numbers haven't been there. He homered on Opening Day, then didn't hit his next bomb until May 10th. He's in the midst of an even longer drought now, homerless since July 11th--a span of 40 games and 167 plate appearances. Wright's endured a massive funk since then, batting .211/.277/.237 with as many GIDP (10) as RBI and, of course, zero home runs. The second half has not been kind to Wright, who's been dogged by injuries but refuses to go on the Disabled List or shut it down for the year.

He's hitting slightly fewer fly balls than he did last year and compared to his career rate, but enough to explain such a massive decline in home runs. What's odd is that only 5.5 percent of Wright's fly balls have left the yard, easily the lowest of his career. The only other time that figure was below 12 percent was 2009, when Wright had to contend with the cavernous dimensions of Citi Field for the first time. But he's been playing there six years now, so the ballpark adjustment is no longer a viable excuse.

It could be that Wright, who's played only one full season over the past three, is simply wearing down at this stage of the year. Perhaps he's been affected by injuries (recent bouts of neck spasms and recurring right shoulder contusions) more than he lets on. Maybe 2014 is just a down year, nothing more than a fluke from which he will bounce back in 2015.

Or maybe this is the beginning of the end of David Wright as a great player. He's done worse against all pitch types this year except change-ups, with his biggest decline coming against fast balls. That would appear to be the sign of a slowing bat, if not an aging player.Wright's routinely crushed fastballs throughout his career, even in his lesser years, but this year he's been horrible against them. Opposing hurlers aren't pitching him any differently as far as what pitch they throw him, but they should be.

The only thing David Wright's done well this year is play above average defense at the hot corner, which combined with his roughly league average bat has helped him stay above replacement level. But the Mets aren't paying him $20 million this year (nearly one-quarter of their Opening Day payroll) to be a merely average player; they're paying him to be a superstar.

And if Wright's superstar days are truly behind him, then the Mets will most certainly regret locking him up through his age-37 season.

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