>David Wright’s 2009 was so bizarre, I’m dedicating an entire week to examining it. Welcome to David Wright week: Day 2.
Yesterday, I looked at players who suffered home drops as precipitous as Wrights’ and saw that most of them bounced back – but not everyone. I didn’t look for any causes for the home run droughts though. Today, I’ll start taking a look at some of the possible reasons for David Wright’s blackout.
If you watched any Mets games on SNY this year, chances are that you heard Keith Hernandez audibly yawning – but you also probably heard him mention that David Wright was having trouble with fastballs, or that he was missing pitches he would drive in previous years, or that he looked lost at the plate. You definitely heard that his front shoulder was flying open. So something was off with David, but why? Well, some of it was probably D.W. himself – maybe his front shoulder really was flying open* – but some of it also had to do with the improving quality of his competition and then some more of it had to do with the rising velocity of the fastballs David was facing (maybe).
*Then again, Keith Hernandez seems to think everyone’s front shoulder is always flying open. David Wright’s is flying open, Daniel Murphy’s shoulder is flying open, Fernando Martinez’ shoulder is flying open, the hog dog vendor in the upper deck’s shoulder is flying open, Sandy Alomar’s front shoulder was flying open when he hands in the line-up card, Gary Cohen’s front shoulder is opening up, my front shoulder is flying open, your front shoulder is flying open – everyone’s front shoulder is flying open. Go ahead, check your front shoulder right now. It’s probably already flown open during the time you took to read this.
David Wright’s bat sometimes looked slow in 2009, but remember that motion is relative – so maybe his bat wasn’t actually slowing down as much as it seemed. The average speed of a fastball thrown to David Wright in 2007 was 89.7 mph. In 2008, it jumped to 90.5, then rose to 91.1 mph in 2009. David also faced more and more fastballs every year since 2006, rising from 59.1% to 62.6% in 2009. So David Wright’s bat possibly looked slower because the pitches he was swinging at were often faster – though this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to David Wright. The collective group of pitchers in the majors are throwing faster fastballs than they were two years ago as a whole, almost a full MPH more. So we know that for whatever reason there are more fireballers in the majors than there were two years ago. Could this be what is affecting David Wright’s power? Is there any evidence that David Wright struggles against faster pitchers more than the average player does – specifically in terms of power?
Well, the answer is complicated and inconclusive. So, sort of, I guess. I took the 35 pitchers David Wright has faced at least 20 times in his career, then took David’s slugging percentage against each, subtracted from it what all other right-handed hitters slugged against that pitcher, and compared that number to the average velocity of the pitcher’s fastball. In other words, I’m comparing how fast a pitcher’s fastball is to how well David Wright hit for power against them.
For an example, let’s take Jon Lieber. David Wright had a career .455 slugging percentage against Jon Lieber, while right-handed batters as a group had a .372 slugging percentage against Lieber – so David slugged 83 points higher than the average right hander against Lieber. I marked Lieber off on the chart so you can see how that performance ranks in the mess of dots.
Here is a scatter plot of all David’s power performance against all 35 against how hard they throw:
The corelation is not a strong one: -.12 for those of you that are interested (Correlations fall between -1 and 1, with either 1 or -1 being a perfect corelation or perfect negative correlation, and 0 being complete randomness). The relationship between a pitcher’s fastball speed and how well David Wright slugs against it is close to random and very weak evidence – if it’s evidence of anything at all. However, you can see that David’s highest relative slugging percentage comes against Brad Penny, whose fastball sits at around 93 MPH – Wright homered off him four times in just 25 appearances, which is especially weird because Penny is generally good at suppressing home runs – David Wright by himself accounts for about 5% of Penny’s NL home runs since 2004. If we call Penny an outlier and eliminate that data, then the correlation jumps up to -.26, which although still really weak, is slightly better evidence that David might struggle to hit for power against fireballers.
Does this actually prove anything? Well . . . no, not really. It’s not an excessively strong correlation even after I selectively eliminated Brad Penny; it’s also a small data set made up of small data sets, so all kinds of sample size warnings apply. At best, it hints that David Wright may struggle to drive the ball against fast pitchers more than an average player does, and at worst, it’s just a random jumble of points that sort of looks like a turtle if you stare at it long enough. I’ll file this in the maybe pile – while it may have affected his power, it’s safe to say that the rising velocity of the fastballs David Wright was facing did not cause his blackout alone. It cost him a HR or two at most, if any at all.
David Wright did indeed struggle against fastballs in 2009 – he went from being 41.0 runs above average against fastballs in 2007 to just 10.6 runs above average in 2009, according to Fangraphs – heavily contributing to his overall offensive drop. Whether or not this has anything to do with the rising velocity remains to be seen.
Like I said before, some of the power drop probably had to do with David himself, but a bit of it may have to do with the improved quality of pitching in the National League East in 2009. From the beginning of 2008 until the end of 2009, the following (decent to good) pitchers joined or rejoined the rotations of the Mets’ division rivals: Javier Vasquez, Jair Jurrjens, Kenshin Kawakami, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, J.A. Happ, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, and Josh Johnson. Everyone’s staff got better – the Braves had a “Princess Diaries” like make-over that it pushed them to 3rd in team ERA in 2009 after being ranked 21st in 2008. The Phillies were 8th and the Marlins 13th in 2009, so the starting pitching in the NL East has become quite impressive. A drop in David Wright’s batting statistics should have been expected – the Mets have to play the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins 54 times a year, and only get to fatten up on the Nationals 18 times. You can see here that David was batting against more top notch pitchers in 2009 and less scrap heap material (possibly because all the scrap heap material was on the Mets in 2009):EDIT: Order of the years fixed. Hat tip to anonymous.
Wright failed to fatten up against crummy pitchers because he faced fewer of them and homered at a much reduced rate against
them – though the rising quality of pitching alone would have lowered his home run tally even if he had maintained his rate of power. Motion is relative, if by motion you mean “performance relative to the quality of opposing pitcher.” If I correct his 2009 home run rate against each group of pitchers to his previous levels, David still would have hit only 26ish home runs – much better than 10, but still 7 less than his 2008 total and 4 less than 2007’s total. So this may explain where 7-4 of his home runs went, and now we just need to find the other 16 or so.
So, better pitching alone doesn’t satisfactory explain how 33 home runs becomes 10 just a year later. The improved rotations are part of the story, the rising velocity could be part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. It’s like 20% of the story – about how much as you get from watching two hours of “Lords of the Rings.” The extended editions, of course.
Come back tomorrow for the tale of one country boy from Virginia and his adventures in the big Citi. Until then, may I recommend that you read David Wright’s translation of Beowulf.
David Wright Week: It’s like Shark Week, only with even more blood.*
*Amount of still blood subject to change.