Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3

This is Part 3 of 3. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here.

6. Confidence as It Relates to Playing Defense

I play basketball four or five times a week. “Play basketball,” as used here, means a lot of different things. Sometimes it means that I’ll pick up a basketball and shoot around on an empty court for an hour. Sometimes it’s playing pickup games with friends or strangers. And sometimes it’s just shooting free throws for ten minutes before doing something else at the gym. But I will physically pick up a basketball and do some basketball-related things at least four or five times a week. I’m not great by any stretch of the imagination. Because I’m mostly self-taught after a long layoff, I’m pretty sure there are an enormous number of fundamental things I do terribly wrong. I can’t jump off just my left foot without significant mental effort, for example, which makes my righthanded layups look really goofy. I’m still athletic enough to make up some of the gap, but I’m never close to being the best player or even one of the better players on the court. I’m not totally useless either, though.

That’s a good life goal of mine, right there. Not to be totally useless.

Well, that’s all really half-true. When I’m playing one-on-one, or with just my friends, I’m halfway-decent and not totally useless. Playing with strangers is an entirely different story — playing pickup basketball with strangers is a sociological experiment in motion. Every player is trying to size every other player else up as quickly as possible to figure out who can shoot, who can pass, who can handle the ball and play defense, who’s going to take too many shots and who’s that one freaking guy taking it all too seriously. The point being that there’s an enormous amount of pressure to impress in a small-sample size. If you miss your first couple of shots, your teammates will stop passing you the ball and then you end up just running up and down the court not doing anything for the rest of the game. I am painfully aware of this fact; it’s not helpful, and it’s ultimately my undoing. What generally ends up happening is that, when I get my first open shot, I realize the relative gravity of the moment. And because I’m now thinking about shooting instead of actually shooting, I end up missing ten feet short or hitting the top of the backboard or some other embarrassing way to miss. Really brutal stuff, so bad I blow on my hands and look at them and pretend that they’re cold or something and ultimately responsible for the terrible shot. Basically, I choke. I’m a choker. I over-think.

Now, this never happens when I’m playing with friends – they know my skill level and I know they know, so I’ll continue to see the ball should I swish the first shot or launch an air ball. So I almost never throw up truly ugly shots when playing with friends. But when I’m playing with people I don’t know all that well, I don’t have the same confidence. I almost always totally, totally choke on that first shot, send off a dying quail, panic a bit, start over-thinking basic stuff like layups and end up missing those, too. Then I’ll get over-aggressive on defense in an attempt to compensate for my now FUBAR offense. Then that goes to hell, too. Someone blows by me when I go for a steal, or I leave my man to trap someone else and my guy sneaks behind for a layup. I get the yips shooting and nearly everything else — dribbling, passing, defense (though rebounding seems immune) — just falls apart. My offense takes down my defense and just about everything else.

I’m going to put forth that this is basically what has happened to David Wright on some sort of more complicated level. On one hand, like the aforementioned psychological toughness and wrist strength, baseball players possess a higher level confidence than the general population. Chokers like me are weeded out long before we’re allowed anywhere near the professional ranks of athletics, such that all that gets through are the hyper-confident and hyper-talented. But breakdowns in confidence still happen. The yips, an inability to throw the baseball with any accuracy, are a real phenomena, famously derailing the careers of pitchers Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel, and less notably but more recently affecting the careers of position players Chin-Lung Hu and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, among others. That kind of stuff is real.

I don’t think that David Wright has the yips per se (though he has certainly been the type to have problems throwing). Rather, the fact that Wright’s defense has declined by the eye and by the metrics since 2009 — to the point that you could make a strong case that he is now the worst-fielding everyday third baseman in baseball — is certainly unexpected, considering that he rated as a scratch-to-good defender over the first five seasons of his career. It’s down right weird when you consider that it happened simultaneously with his offensive decline.

On one hand, although his defensive decline occurred concurrently with his offensive decline, there’s no physical reason why the distance of the walls should affect someone’s fielding at third base. Even if the wall in left field was a flashing LED display board that played seizure-causing Japanese cartoons on a non-stop loop, the third baseman’s back is to the wall when he’s at his position. He should be okay in the field unless it’s a pop-up just over his shoulder and only then, catching a glance of the wall, will he start foaming at the mouth. But there’s no architectural reason the two, a decline in fielding and a decline in hitting, should be related. There is a decent argument that it’s all just a coincidence. David Wright’s decline as a fielder could be seen as completely unrelated to his decline as a hitter. This seems to be the sabermetric party line, more or less.

But honestly . . . I don’t know how to make this argument any better than just by saying, “come on.” So, you know . . . come on. Isn’t it at least a little bit weird for a player to simultaneously decline as a fielder and a hitter for two different reasons over the same period of time? Isn’t it weird for a player to start striking out like crazy when he changes ballparks? In my experiences in the absolute lowest levels of athletic competition, confidence makes a huge difference. Struggling in one aspect of a game can sometimes lead to struggles in unrelated aspects.

Now, David Wright is much better at remaining confident in his abilities in the face of adversity than I am, if only because I’m quite terrible at it and almost everyone is better than me. But I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that his multiple offensive and defensive struggles might be related, perhaps in an attempt to overcompensate. At the very least, it seems like this would be the most satisfying answer in an Occam’s Razor kind of way — an across the board decline seems more likely than not to be rooted in one single cause than in a whole bunch of little causes.

7. Alternative Hypothesis.

The standard UZR disclaimer: Advanced defensive metrics aren’t reliable, and David Wright isn’t that much better or worse defensively than he used to be.

8. The Real Question: Will Bringing in the Walls Help David Wright?

In my thoroughly non-expert opinion — yes.

In terms of his offense, even ignoring things like his approach, it seems obvious that moving the walls should help David Wright at least a little. If you take any hitter and bring the fences in for him, he’s going to hit more home runs. The spray charts hint that Wright will get back a handful of home runs a year even if everything else remains the same.

But the change may be even more dramatic if Wright gets back his approach from 2005-08.

Since Citi Field opened, it seems that Wright has shifted away from an opposite-field/all-field hitter and moved more into a poor approximation of a pull hitter. Only David Wright really isn’t big or strong enough to become a pure pull hitter — at six feet and 220 pounds, he’s actually on the smaller side for power hitters. So he’s really just mutated into a version of David Wright that strikes out a ton and hits a few more home runs than he would otherwise. It seems to me that he’s trying to crush everything (which explains the strikeouts) and is basically succeeding. And that’s the interesting thing: Wright actually is hitting for more power than ever before. It’s simply being masked by the park: The 17 home runs Wright hit on the road in 2010 were a career high for road home runs. Between 2010 and 2011, when he’s been downright blah, Wright has been on a 32 home runs per 162 games pace on the road; from 2005-2008, when he was totally awesome, he averaged 27 home runs on the road per 162 games. Considering home field advantage, and that pre-Citi Field Wright consistently hit more home runs at home, if Wright doesn’t adjust his swing in any way for the 2012 season it wouldn’t be surprising if he hit 40 home runs with the new fences. I’m 50% serious about this. I really wouldn’t be surprised.

If David Wright can get his old swing back – hit the ball to center and right-center, and stop striking out so much — he’s going to be a lot more valuable to the Mets. A David Wright in the Alex Rodriguez mold of hitters is more valuable than a David Wright in the Mark Reynolds mold of hitters, even if he’s hitting more home runs and tallying more RBI as a Mark Reynolds hitter. I really do believe that if Wright can get back to where he was in 2008, he’s going to go off – he was one of the five or ten best players in baseball as recently as three years ago, and he’s only going to be 29 this season. There’s an enormous amount of talent there, and making Wright’s home park more advantageous to his natural power just seems like a no-brainer.

Though talent isn’t always enough, if the underlying approach isn’t there. David Wright doesn’t have that approach anymore. He has become, particularly on the road, a hack-tastic pull hitter with a ton of strikeouts and not all that many walks – a quick look at the numbers shows that he’s basically stopped walking on the road. He’s not the defensive player he once was. Wright has gone from a Hall of Fame track to a possible-trade bait track at the age most players improve and peak. All this started the same time the Mets’ changed parks, but he’s different in a way that goes beyond physical distance of the walls. I find it hard to believe the two are unrelated, or minimally related. And while there’s no way to repeat the past or just beat him over the head till he’s fixed, bringing the walls in seems like a close enough approximation. I think it’s going to help in a way that goes beyond spray charts.

But maybe not. There are an enormous number of wishes and ifs going on here. I’m looking at the pieces and thinking it can all be glued together again, but sometimes things are just broken.

There’s a novel by Thomas Wolfe, the title of which has become a cliché: You Can’t Go Home Again. Maybe it was a cliche before it was the title of a book, I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s a tricky title. The way most people seem to read it is that you can’t go home again, because home changes. I think that misses the point. The real point of the title and the book, or at least what I think the real point is, is that you can’t go home again because you change. Every time you walk out your door, you learn things, you grow, you get hurt. You go on a quest and confront challenges, and when you come back you’re a different person, sometimes better, sometimes worse. It seems like home is the only thing changing, but it’s not. You’ve changed too.

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11 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

11 responses to “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3

  1. Yeah, I would think that the offensive and defensive drop off have to be connected in some way. It seems a bit improbable that it would all be completely random and that there would be no connection or no reason for either of the two to occur. I can buy the psychological angle.

    Though the one thing that does make me a bit skeptical of it just being a pure psychological thing regarding the defense is the major drop off in range. Conceptually, at least to me, it makes some sense that thinking too much, trying to be too perfect, aim the ball, etc. could have an influence on errors…but it terms of how well a guy moves, how much ground he covers, etc. I don’t know. Which then triggers the “this is the Mets we’re talking about, expect the worst” side of me…which makes me wonder a bit as to whether he did just hit some early physical decline for some reason and/or he’s had some injury issues we aren’t fully aware of (the conspiracy theorists out there suggest the back injury could have been present to a lesser degree prior to this season) which then could lead to the pessimistic conclusion that things won’t get better.

    However, it would seem to be a bit coincidental that this physical stuff just suddenly became an issue at the same time the Mets moved into Citi (unless Citi was built on some ancient burial ground and is somehow cursed)…so I am going to just hope for the rosy projection that it Citi’s fault. And the even rosier prediction that Wright will be able to snap out of it and not have any lingering reminants of being messed up by these last 3 yrs.

  2. “sometimes things are just broken.”

    Sweet jeebus, I hope that’s not the case. That is possibly the scariest possible thing you could write about DW.

  3. I remember how things got so bad for Chuck Knoblauch that he was moved to left field, so he would stop beaning teammates’ moms down the first-base lines. And that is definitely a thinking too much thing… ok, line up the throw, get good pace, holy mother of pearl it’s sailing into the press box. I won’t do that next time, just guide it in there… on four hops. Crap.

    I mean, Mackey Sasser could throw out basestealers but couldn’t return the ball to the pitcher – he’d double and triple clutch just trying to toss it back to the mound. Who knows?

    I also think that on the pro level, where the difference between awesome and terrible is so razor-close, even the smallest thing can have a disastrous effect.

    • Patrick Flood

      Remember when he hit Keith Olbermann’s mother with an errant throw?

      • Oh, gracious… If Olbermann hadn’t made his scorched-earth exit from Bristol, they’d probably have run a 30 for 30 documentary of it.

        Looking over Knoblauch’s career again, it’s easy to forget how good a player he was up until about 30. Then everything went to pot on him and he was out of baseball at 34. Based on what the Twins got out of Christian Guzman and Eric Milton, plus turning Brian Buchanan into a few good years of Jason Bartlett… you’d have to say they did much better out of that trade than the Yankees did.

        Thinking of Knoblauch and Carlos Baerga and Edgardo Alfonzo make me very scared for David Wright’s career arc moving forward.

  4. Very nice article, but you use the word “tract” a couple of times when I’m pretty sure you mean “track.” Unless you mean “hall of fame tract” to be a metaphorical sort of parcel of land that hall of famers would belong on or something. But great job here.

  5. Hi Patrick,

    I’m buying the relationship between confidence and offensive-defensive decline, but I think your analysis starts a year late. It seems to me that the transition from HOF track to trade bait began in 2008.

    His 2008 RBI totals are great… because he led the league in ABs with men on and men in scoring position. He was TERRIBLE in the clutch that year (.243 RISP). I don’t know what the spray charts say, but he also seemed to be pulling more.

    I know it’s hard to look at those 2008 stats and complain, but when you consider what he’d done in 2007, and that most players his age (25) are still improving, 2008 can be seen as a step back.

    I don’t think the first nail in the coffin was the move to Citi. I think it was the 2007 collapse.

  6. This has been a fantastic series. Thanks for expressing so well what is really sort of common sense once you pull all the noise away.

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