New York Mets third baseman David Wright announced his retirement, effective at the end of the 2018 season, at a press conference on Thursday afternoon. Wright’s been trying to mount a comeback for a few years now, following a 2015 diagnosis of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine that puts pressure on the nerves. The condition is degenerative and, in the four seasons since the start of that 2015 campaign, Wright has managed to appear in only 75 games with the Mets. He was hoping to make one last attempt to resume his career, working with the St. Lucie Mets for most of August before a couple of tuneup games with Triple-A Las Vegas, but that time in the minors appears merely to have confirmed the challenges that a major-league role would have presented to him.
Finishing off my 30s gave me a perspective on chronic injuries that I didn’t have 20 years ago. I am decidedly not a professional athlete. That said, I’ve observed as my own random aches and pains have multiplied over the last decade. I assume that, for a professional athlete — with much higher physical standards to maintain and much more day-to-day activity than a doughy sportswriter — it’s much worse. There are those who will say, “Don’t worry. He has a $100 million. He’ll be OK!” Certainly that was one view of Prince Fielder’s own premature retirement. (That was another tear-jerker of a press conference.) And, in one sense, it’s not incorrect: David Wright is free from worrying about the day-to-day costs of living. But he’s also someone who’s entire adult life has been dedicated to a particular endeavor (baseball) and who’s now forced to contend with the fact that his ability to participate in that endeavor has been cut short by five or so years. Hearing Wright say that “physically, the way I feel right now and everything the doctors have told me, there’s not going to be any improvement” was tough to watch for any fan of Wright or any fan of baseball.
Wright’s major-league career isn’t quite over, though: the Mets will activate him to start at third base on September 29th against the Marlins. I like when teams have the ability to do this kind of thing, and I was personally disappointed when the Yankees didn’t play A-Rod at shortstop for the final inning of his career. And playing one last game seems a lot more satisfying than signing a one-day contract, as players sometimes do with clubs that have had particular relevance to their careers.
David Wright’s immortality for the Mets is assured at this point, the defining player on the Mets over a decade that featured seven All-Star appearances. Through his age-29 season, the last year before his shoulder and then back injuries became chronic conditions, he was on an early approach-path to Cooperstown — or at least to being Cooperstown-worthy, given the Hall’s dreadful track record with players in the middle of the defensive spectrum.
Through the end of his 20s, Wright ranked 11th among third basemen by WAR, having just passed the 200-homer mark. One thing Wright had going for him when looking ahead at career achievements is that he was also widely recognized as a superstar third baseman, getting full credit in the press for his contributions.
Where would he have ended up? It’s a bit bittersweet to consider, but one of the benefits of having a projection system handy is to, well, run projections for stuff. So I ran ZiPS as if the 2012 season had just ended, assuming Wright finished his career with the Mets and avoided the chronic injuries that ultimately forced him out of the game.
All in all, whether you think Wright had a decent Hall of Fame case or a borderline one depends on how you feel about advanced defensive data, in which capacity Wright fared poorly. At league-average defense for the course of his career, Wright hits 70 wins instead of 60, a more solid case. But either in the Hall of Fame or Very Good, David Wright’s injuries robbed both him and baseball fandom several years of a fine player, with a career that ought to be remembered.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.