With one out and one on in the fourth inning of Friday night’s Mets-Braves game, Atlanta’s Matt Diaz rolled over a possible double play ball towards third. David Wright fielded the ball cleanly but threw low to second — the runner Derrek Lee was safe on Wright’s error, the batter Diaz was safe at first, the inning continued, and the Braves went on to erupt for six unearned runs. It was Wright’s nineteenth error of the season and his eleventh on a throw, both of which are leading figures for National League third basemen. The game had officially been changed.
So this got me wondering: Is David Wright a good defensive year as a third baseman, all things considered? Or a bad one? And how good or bad? If you’re anything like me, you hold your breath every time Wright fields a ball and double pumps . . . but he’s also won two Gold Gloves. There’s some evidence to be found for both sides.
Well, here’s something odd: David Wright leads National League third basemen in both assists and putouts this season, with 298 assists and 103 putouts . . . but, as said above, he also leads the league with 19 errors as a third baseman. In fact, Wright leads NL third basemen in double plays turned, so there’s a triple crown of sorts for you — assists, putouts, and double plays. This seems to imply that he might be a good fielder.
But here’s the real something: David Wright doesn’t lead the league in those categories because he’s vacuuming balls up left and right (and then hurling a few of them into the stands). His lead is a function of the absurd number of balls that have been hit in his direction this season, which is itself a function of the absurd number of lefthanded starting pitchers the Mets have used. Lefties Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Hisanori Takahashi, Pat Misch and Oliver Perez have started 80 of the Mets 150 games this season — well over half their games, and far more starts from LHP than any other team. Opposing teams load their lineups with righthanded batters against lefthanded pitchers, and righthanded batters pull more balls to the left side of the field. What that means, is that Wright has been quite busy this year. His fielding statistics are all inflated because of the handedness of the Mets pitching rotation.
For example, Wright leads NL third basemen with 19 errors, which sounds bad — but his .955 fielding percentage is actually better than the .951 average fielding percentage for NL third basemen. Given the same number of fielding chances, an average third basemen would be expected to make 20 or 21 errors. In other words, Wright has actually saved the Mets an error or two with his play, and he leads the league only because he’s had far more opportunities to make them.
A similar thing goes for his assist total. Wright leads the league with 298 assists, which sounds good — but righthanded hitters have been at the plate 66% of the time he’s been in the field, and the league average is 61% righthanded batters. If we adjust for that high percentage, an average defender at third base would be expected to record 301 assists during the time Wright was on the field — or 3 more than his actual total. If you look at this way — you might not — Wright is actually in the red for assists despite leading the league.
So we know that Wright has recorded more assists, putouts, errors, boyish charm, and double plays than any other third baseman in the NL — but I don’t think those numbers tell us many useful things about his fielding, other than he’s done a lot more of it than anyone else. We need to look at it another way if we want to know if Wright has played well or not defensively.
This is where the new fielding statistics come to the rescue. John Dewan’s plus/minus system — a video system which tracks how many plays a fielder makes above (plus) or below (minus) an average fielder at that position — has Wright making 9 fewer plays than an average third baseman would with the same chances. The plus/minus is one which doesn’t favor Wright’s defense, ranking him tied for 14th out of 16 NL third basemen in plays made above or below average. Strike one.
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) — which owns the most Dungeons and Dragons-esque name of the fielding systems — is another, similar video-based method for evaluating defense. It too is not a fan of David Wright’s defense, also ranking him 14th out of 16 in terms of preventing runs at third. Strike two.
There’s a third system available on Baseball-Reference, Total Zone, which relies mostly on the recorded location of hits allowed (i.e. the blame for a ground ball single to the hole is split between the third baseman and the shortstop). Total Zone rates Wright as 13th out of 16 in terms of preventing runs among NL third basemen. So that’s strike three, and, well, I assume you’re familiar enough with the rules of baseball to know what that means.
That’s three separate systems coming to the same conclusion, although two of them use similar methods: David Wright almost at the bottom in terms of costing his team runs as a third baseman. Now it looks like Wright is one of the worst defenders at third.
BUT . . . costing his team the most runs is not the same as Wright being among the absolute worst defenders at third. Remember what we saw with the errors before: Wright leads the league in errors this season, but that mostly has to do with the large number of balls he’s fielded this season. The same basic thing is going on here.
If we just look at the percentage of balls in a fielder’s “zone” that are turned into outs — this is the Revised Zone Rating (RZR) you see on Fangraphs — Wright’s defense looks better. He’s turned balls in his zone into outs at a .688 percentage, still below the average of .705, but good enough to jump to 11th out of 16 in the NL. He’s now much closer to the middle defensively than he is to the bottom — I think this is a better indicator of his actual defensive skills than anything else this season. He’s below average, though not awful.
But Wright has had 43 more balls hit into his zone than any other third baseman — or 43 more chances to be below average, if you want to look at it that way. It’s like giving 300 at-bats to a .250 hitter and 250 at-bats to a .270 hitter and then comparing their outs made. The .250 hitter is going to make more outs than the .270 hitter, but his out total is going to be inflated by having more at-bats. Same thing here. This is why he’s near the bottom in runs saved. Wright is a below average defender, but he’s had more opportunities to be below average than anyone else. That has made him look worse in the advanced stuff.
OK, doubters and number haters who are still reading — I know Wright has won two Gold Gloves, so if you’re not convinced he’s a minus with the glove, do this little exercise. Here is a link to David Wright’s video highlights on MLB.com. Here is a link to Ryan Zimmerman’s. Look at their fielding highlights. Almost all of Wright’s defensive highlights are Wright making a diving stop to his left, getting up, shuffling his feet and pumping his arm, and then making a throw that needs to be scooped by Ike Davis at first. I can’t find any highlights of Wright making long throws on balls hit to his right. Ryan Zimmerman’s highlights has both plays on balls to his left and right, and he makes good, quick throws right to the first baseman’s chest on just about every one of them. This isn’t a super-scientific method — though this is just a blog, so the standards of science are somewhat loosened around here — but if you watch the video highlights, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Ryan Zimmerman is a much better defensive third baseman than David Wright. This conclusion is indeed what the numbers say in an overwhelming manner — Wright is minus-8 plays by plus/minus, Zimmerman is plus-25 plays.
Anyway, no matter how you cut it, David Wright is not having a good defensive season. He has a lower than expected assists total despite leading the league; he is rated near the bottom by both plus/minus, UZR, and Total Zone; he turns balls in his fielding zone into outs at a below average rate. He’s not having as good a season as the assists and putouts might make it seem, but I don’t think he’s as bad as the UZR and plus/minus numbers make it seem. He’s somewhere in the middle, but all of Wright’s numbers are magnified by the absurd number of balls he’s had to field. Good or bad, David Wright has sure been busy.