On David Wright’s defense

I noticed some incoming traffic from a comments thread on Amazin’ Avenue and investigated because I’m pathetically vain. One of the readers there linked to this post in the midst of a lengthy discussion about David Wright’s contract extension, focusing largely on Wright’s defense and the way his improved UZR in 2012 impacted his WAR.

Here's what David Wright looks like. Like many of the conversations at that site, it’s an interesting discussion and worth checking out. In lieu of chiming in there, I’ll add some notes on Wright’s defense here.

I am a longtime defender of Wright’s defense and UZR skeptic. I appreciate that the stat is the best we have to quantify defense and I do use it to inform my understanding of baseball. But it’s so fickle and so frequently misused that it often frustrates me. And though I think sometimes knowledge of a player’s UZR can color our perceptions when watching the games, I do think there’s still a lot of value in empirical assessments, and I find it extraordinarily difficult to believe that Wright was a worse defensive third baseman from 2009-2011 as Miguel Cabrera was in 2012.

The stat, as you may know, requires huge sample sizes to be considered predictive, so much so that I suspect in many cases by the time it can be adequately used to measure a player, the player has already changed. In any case, I’d argue that Wright’s huge uptick in UZR in 2012 should not be viewed as an outlier in an otherwise alarming trend but another data point in Wright’s career totals, which show him to be an average to slightly below average defender at third base.

Though I do think I noticed defensive improvements from Wright at third base in 2012 — those frequently credited to better footwork from Tim Teufel’s coaching — I realize that my eyes were probably biased by my knowledge of his improved UZR. And I struggle to accept that he was the best defensive third baseman in the Majors last season after playing as pretty much the very worst for the prior three. I recognize that the data only reflects what happened, so I’m guessing that Wright was actually somewhere near the middle the middle of the pack throughout and suffered from the heavy hand of randomness.

Also — and I’m not sure if this is something that has been quantified or studied and dismissed — but I imagine some of Wright’s improvement can be attributed to the presence of Ike Davis at first base. It’s no secret that Wright has been plagued by throwing troubles at times in the past, but in 2012 he made only six throwing errors, his fewest in any full season. (And I’m pretty certain, for what it’s worth, at least one of those was thrown to second base and one to a non-Davis first baseman.) From anecdotal evidence alone, it’s not hard to figure why an infielder’s throws would improve with a big, steady target at first base.

My guess is that Wright, with Davis or some other solid defender at first, plays like the average or slightly below average defensive third baseman he has been, in aggregate, over the course of his career. If you want to use the fangraphs version of his WAR to assess his value to the Mets but prefer to dock him the “wins” he earned with his defense in 2012, it’s probably worth crediting him back some of those he lost from 2009-2011. Bottom line, David Wright’s a really awesome baseball player no matter which way you want to draw it up.

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