David Wright hits a lot of doubles. He has twenty-two doubles this season, which puts him three off the major league lead. He has 244 career doubles in 921 career games, and is now the Mets franchise leader in two-base hits; Miguel Cabrera is the only active player under age 30 with more career doubles than Wright (and Cabrera has just 29 more doubles in about 800 more plate appearances). Still, Wright has never finished higher than seventh on the NL doubles leaderboard in any given season. He hits just enough to make it into the top ten, but not enough to jump into the top five.
As might be expected with Wright, his doubles have been
boringly just about evenly distributed over his career. He hit 17 in 69 games as a rookie; then 42 the next year; 40 in 2006; 42 the year after; 42 again in 2008; and, despite everything else, he still hit 39 in the 144 games in 2009. He is on pace for around 48 this year, which would be a career high and might be enough to lead the league . . . but there’s still a lot of baseball left to play. Tomorrow never knows.
I want to bring up David Wright and his doubles because I’m often surprised at how little thought doubles are given — well, no, that’s not true. I’m not surprised by it at all. Doubles aren’t flashy little red Corvettes like home runs or stolen bases; they’re not a stat tracked in fantasy baseball leagues, likes runs and RBI; they’re not even the “most exciting play in baseball,” as triples are sometimes called. Someone hits a ball into the gap, he makes the turn at first and then coasts his way easily into second base . . . and he gets a double. It’s a bit more exciting than a well-struck single, but not all that much more exciting. SportsCenter doesn’t show a highlight reel of all the night’s doubles. It really doesn’t come as a surprise that no one pays much attention to them.
I would guess that even the most causal of baseball fans know who the all time home run leader is, the stolen base leader, and the hits leader. I’d also guess that most fans can also come up with a fair estimate for what sort of numbers their favorite players complies each year for those stats. Ryan Howard will hit between 40 and 50 home runs, Carl Crawford will steal around 50 bases, and Ichiro will put up over 200 hits. Carlos Beltran will hit around 30 home runs, Jose Reyes around 15, and Luis Castillo around none, if he gets lucky. If you follow your team, you have a feel for these sorts of things. Call it fantuition.
On the other hand, I don’t think anyone pays attention to doubles in the same way. About how many doubles does Carlos Beltran hit every year? Jose Reyes? Ryan Howard? Albert Pujols? I have to look all of those up. Who led the National League in doubles last year? Miguel Tejeda? Really? Him? Who’s the active leader in doubles? I didn’t know without looking. (It’s Ivan Rodriguez.) And the all time doubles leader . . . well, that’s a bit of a tough all time one. Tris Speaker doesn’t quite ring with the same recognition as names like Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Pete Rose. For whatever reasons, no one really cares all that much about doubles. If baseball statistics are like Friends, then doubles are like Phoebe.
In fact, the all time doubles leaderboard has an interesting mix of relatively unheralded players:
Tris Speaker – 792
Pete Rose – 746
Stan Musial – 725
Ty Cobb – 724
Craig Biggio – 668
George Brett – 665
Nap Lajoie – 657
Carl Yastrzemski – 646
Honus Wagner – 643
Hank Aaron – 624
So, people had funny names a century ago, didn’t they?
Just the top five contains deadball players and a steroid era player; it also has maybe the nicest player in baseball history sandwiched between (1) a man banned from the game for life and (2) the man Ernest Hemingway once called “the greatest of all ballplayers . . . and an absolute shit.” It’s a peculiar mix of eras, playing styles, and demeanors, unlike some of the other historical leaderboards.
For comparison’s sake, five of the top ten all time home run hitters played in the 2000s, and just one played before 1950. All of the triples leaders played in the deadball era — Stan Musial is the closest thing to a contemporary player among the top twenty-five in triples. The batting average leaderboard is Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and deadball stars. This is all in relative contrast to doubles. There doesn’t seem to be an era when doubles became more prominent. The top years for doubles are simply the top offensive years in baseball — there are no real comparative up periods as there are for home runs and triples. Because of that, the leaderboard isn’t dominated by one time period over any other one.
(Perhaps) more interestingly — and the real point here — the doubles leaderboard sees a more than a fair share of the underappreciated players in baseball history. Rose, Cobb, and Aaron are well known for their other accomplishments, but Honus Wagner, for his part, is best known for being on a baseball card. Bill James once called Craig Biggio the best player of the 1990s. Either Tris Speaker or Stan Musial might be the most severely underappreciated player of all time. I’d guess that Nap Lajoie is best known for being that guy with the funny name.
The thing is: among position players, Baseball-Reference awards Speaker the seventh most career WAR, with Musial tied for eighth place; Lajoie, Yaz, and Brett are all also ranked in the top 30. Still, I don’t know how recognizable the names of Tris Speaker and Stan Musial are, especially when compared to names like Ruth, Bonds, Mays, Aaron, Williams, and Mantle that sit around them on such lists. I suspect that it speaks to the historical underappreciation of the two-base hit’s value.
Which brings me back to David Wright and his doubles. The Mets have been playing much better baseball of late — plenty of this has to do with Jose Reyes, who has gone absolutely bonkers (.363/.404/.600, six home runs, ten steals) since May 22. He rightly deserves much of the credit. The pitching and defense have also been surprising, allowing just 3.09 runs per game in the month of June. The bullpen suddenly looks much sturdier, particularly with the addition of Bobby Parnell and his seven strikeouts in four innings of work. The manager has stopped doing inexplicable things — for the moment — and now only does explicable-if-odd things. That has all helped.
But David Wright has also been going crazy, batting .355/.410/.605 with six home runs since the May 22 win over the Yankees. He also hit thirteen doubles over that span of games, which would be an (unsustainable) pace of sixty-five doubles over a full season. The single season record for doubles is 67, set by Earl Webb in 1931. Wright is not going to keep it up, but he has been doubling at a ridiculous pace . . . but because no one pays much attention to doubles, Wright’s hot streak has gone undernoticed.
Two side notes. Skip if you don’t care:
1. Earl Webb had a peculiar baseball career. He started off as a bad pitcher in the minor leagues, compiling a 37-47 record over four seasons in the low levels, so he found himself turned into an outfielder. He played four games for the Giants in 1925, back to the minors in ’26, emerged for two seasons as a part-time outfielder for the Cubs in 1927 and 1928, disappeared to the Pacific Coast League in 1929, and then reappeared with the Red Sox in 1930. In 1931, he hit his 67 d
oubles, drove in 103 runs, hit .333, and finished sixth in MVP voting, playing for a team that won just 62 games. His performance dropped off somewhat in 1932 and he was traded to the Tigers. A year later, he was picked up on waivers by the White Sox, and then was out major league baseball just two years after setting the doubles record that still stands. He kicked around to play four more seasons in the minors, hitting well above .300 for the first three of them.
What’s particularly odd, is that his career major league line was .306/.381/.478; his minor league average was .333, with a slugging percentage of .521. The slugging percentage was mostly made up of doubles. The dude could rake — after all, he holds the single season doubles record. I have no idea why he was a full time player in the major leagues for just three years, and there isn’t much information freely available on him. Maybe it can just be chalked up to the historical undervaluing of doubles.
2. I would like to point out that Wright is batting .325 with runners in scoring position this season, if only because that stat seems only to get paraded about when he isn’t hitting with RISP.
Anyway, all the talk is “as Reyes goes, the Mets go,” or “the Mets are only as good as their starting pitching.” And that’s sort of true. The Mets play better when Reyes plays better, and they play better when they pitch better, but . . . maybe that’s because the Mets play better as a team when the individuals playing for them perform better. Or whatever.
Still, it’s easy to point to the Mets record when Jose Reyes scores a run and say that it explains their recent success. Maybe it does to a certain extent. But I think, in a way, it’s also ignoring the foundation of the Mets success. David Wright is the best player on the Mets. Jose Reyes is easily the most fun, but Wright is the best. Even during his miserable May, Wright put up a league average OPS. David Wright at his WORST is still better than half the league. Jose Reyes has been great. The pitching has been great. And David Wright has also been great. But the problem is that Wright almost always is great — even if it’s done quietly with a bunch of doubles.
For whatever reason, we just don’t pay attention to doubles — like Stan Musial, Craig Biggio, and Tris Speaker, I think David Wright will continue to be underappreciated until we do. At least, he will be as much as a superstar third baseman playing in New York can be underappreciated.
Image via Keith Allison’s Flickr.