David Wright is back

Josh Hamilton seems to be garnering the majority of the attention as baseball’s best player so far in 2012, but David Wright has perhaps been his equal.

Since Hamilton has 21 home runs and 58 RBIs to Wright’s seven and 33, respectively, few are including Wright’s name in the conversation. From an overall offensive standpoint, though, Wright and Hamilton have actually produced similarly, as evidenced by Wright’s 182 wRC+, which lags just marginally behind Hamilton’s 186, and with a +3.7 WAR, it is Wright, and not Hamilton, who leads baseball in this category.

The major equalizer for Wright is his 16.2 percent walk rate—to Hamilton’s 9.2 pdercent—partially aided by seven intentional passes, but since Hamilton has seen four-wide six times, the difference in this comparison is nominal at best. Even without the intentional walks, Wright’s walk rate would still be 13.6 percent, which would still be good enough for 14th in baseball (currently third).

The intention of this article is not to compare Hamilton’s and Wright’s first two months of 2012, but the point is that Wright has been playing exceptionally well, just not in such an obvious, Hamiltonian way.

The past three years have been somewhat cruel to Wright, who had averaged +6.9 wins above replacement from 2005 to 2008, including an aggregate WAR of 16.0 over the ’07 and ’08 seasons. Since the Mets moved to Citi Field in 2009, Wright has hit just 53 home runs (pre-2012), he has not posted a strikeout rate lower than 21.7 percent—his pre-2009 career high was 17.2 percent—and he missed significant time due to injury in 2011, playing just 102 games.

In addition, UZR took a dim view of his defensive skills during this three-year period. The result was the worst three years of his career, as he average just 3.2 wins above replacement, a number that he has already eclipsed in 54 games this year.

Wright’s improvements this season are fairly distinct. So far in 2012, he is walking at a career high rate, he is striking out just 13 percent of the time, easily the lowest mark of his career, and his power is seemingly back, although that power has been displayed more in the form of doubles than home runs. He is unlikely to keep his .400 BABIP, but he is a career .343 BABIP hitter, and has a current .358 xBABIP, so we shouldn’t expect a catastrophic plummet.

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2010 29.10% 64.10% 45.90% 61.10% 84.00% 76.50% 10.40%
2011 24.80% 63.00% 43.40% 66.80% 87.90% 81.80% 7.70%
2012 18.10% 61.80% 39.20% 69.40% 88.20% 83.80% 6.10%

Wright’s plate discipline is much improved in 2012. He is swinging at far fewer pitches outside the strike zone (according to PITCHf/x) and making more contact when he does chase. He is being a bit more passive on pitches inside the zone, too, but not enough to really dwell on. His contact rate is up for the second straight year and his swinging strike rate is the lowest of his career. Wright’s pitch selection is much improved, and much more closely resembles his ’05-’08 rates than his numbers over the past three seasons. He may not continue to walk more than he strikes out, but it doesn’t look as if he will regress too far here either.

Wright has been getting things done in an abnormal way on balls in play, at least for him, as he is using the center and opposite fields to do most of his damage. He has typically used all areas of the field to good effect, but he has traditionally had the most success pulling the ball. In 2012, however, he has actually struggled to the pull field, but his successes to the other two-thirds of the field have more than made up for it.

The table below shows how Wright has assaulted the various thirds of the field over his career.

Career Distribution wOBA ISO FB%
Pull 39.10% 0.489 0.331 19.00%
Center 32.00% 0.416 0.192 40.60%
Opposite 28.90% 0.378 0.254 63.20%

This second table represents the same data for 2012 alone.

Wright is producing outrageous numbers to the center and opposite fields in 2012, but his pull power is languishing and a 7.5 percent fly ball rate to the pull field is an obvious culprit. In Wright’s career, he has hit 102 of his 190 home runs to the pull third of the field, but thus far in 2012, he has yet to pull a home run.

Here is Wright’s spray chart from 2008-2011, courtesy of Texas Leaguers.


As you can see, Wright likes to deposit balls over the left field wall.


His spray distribution in 2012, however, more closely resembles that of a left-handed hitter.

We don’t really know if his lack of pull power, and success to the opposite field, is the product of a new approach/adjustment at the plate, or if it is just noise. What we do know, however, is that Wright, offensively speaking, is looking like he did prior to the 2009 season. His walks are up, his strikeouts are way down, and his power is there again, though the means with which he is creating his power is a bit different. Perhaps the only barrier between Wright and a truly resurgent season is his slight groundball spike, up to 44.3 percent (career 38.4 percent), which will make it tough for him to maintain power at his current rate, should his present batted ball distribution endure.

ZiPS projects a .289/.379/.476 line from Wright for the remainder of the 2012 season, good for an additional 3.2 WAR. That outlook, however, factors in 15 missed games, a 19.6 percent strikeout rate and a .188 isolated power. With Wright’s improved plate discipline, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him outperform ZIPS’ strikeout rate projection. If he can hit just a few more fly balls, he has the ability to out-power that current power projection, so if he can stay healthy, a +8.0 win season, and some MVP consideration may not be out of the question.

Why Wright has much improved so far this season is not a mystery: He is walking more, swinging at bad pitches less, swinging and missing less, and striking out far less. What is a mystery, though, is how Wright can be struggling to use his best asset, the pull third of the field, and still easily be on pace for the best season of his career.

He won’t continue his extreme success going the other way, and won’t go homerless to the pull field either, but his rejuvenation back to elite status is traveling a remarkable path. Though he is doing it a different way, it looks real on some level. Though he has cooled off a bit lately, David Wright appears to be back.

References & Resources
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs, spray charts courtesy of TexasLeaguers.

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Interestingly, Wright has always been thought of as an opposite field hitter to Mets fans. The past few seasons, probably the leading explanation for Wright’s struggles was that, due to the absurd depth of old Citi Field in Right and Right Center, he was trying to pull too much. He was opening his hips too soon, pulling his head off the ball, and standing too far away from the plate. The narrative this season is that Wright has stopped trying to pull and that is why he has had success. Now, perhaps the reason Mets fans, announcers, and beat writers… Read more »