JAWS and the 2024 Hall of Fame Ballot: David Wright

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2024 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

David Wright is the greatest position player in Mets history, a face-of-the-franchise player who holds the team leads in plate appearances, hits, runs, RBI, total bases, walks, and WAR. A first-round pick out of high school in 2001, the Virginia native spent his entire career with the team, making seven All-Star teams, winning two Gold Gloves, and helping the club to a pair of playoff appearances, including their 2015 pennant.

Though he was surrounded by dysfunction in Queens under the late stages of the Wilpon family’s ownership — the financial tight-fistedness in the wake of the owners’ involvement in the Madoff scandal, the endless micromanagement of injuries, the tone-deaf approach when it came to public relations — Wright stood apart from all of that. Charismatic, exceptionally talented on both sides of the ball, with an off-the-charts work ethic, he was Queens’ answer to Derek Jeter, an icon who avoided scandal, almost invariably said the right thing, and never did anything to embarrass himself or the franchise. Small wonder that he was named team captain in the spring of 2013, and even acquired the nickname “Captain America” while playing for Team USA in that year’s World Baseball Classic.

“If you were going to start from scratch and design the perfect New York ballplayer, David is the kid you’d come up with,” former Mets third baseman and minor league hitting coach Howard Johnson told Sports Illustrated’s Franz Lidz in 2006. “New Yorkers feel cheated if you don’t play hard, get dirty and spill some blood. That’s what the shortstop on the Yankees does, and that’s what David Wright does.”

Alas, Wright turned out to be less Jeter and more Don Mattingly, a superstar whose career was curtailed by back problems. In Wright’s case, he had already missed substantial chunks of two seasons due to injuries when he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis — a narrowing of the spinal canal — in 2015, his age-31 season. He played just 77 games after the diagnosis, though not for lack of trying; he rehabbed endlessly, undergoing a trio of surgeries on his right shoulder, neck, and back in a 16-month span. Inevitably, the Mets found a new way to shame themselves and connect their superstar to controversy when they dragged their feet in activating him, preferring to collect the insurance money for the latter years of his franchise-record eight-year, $138 million extension over giving him a dignified exit. Ultimately they relented, and Wright got the sendoff he deserved via a two-game cameo at the end of the 2018 season.

Wright’s short career prevented him from accumulating the full resumé that would give him a real shot at election to the Hall of Fame, whether it comes to traditional milestones or advanced stats. He’s well shy of 2,000 hits, and short of the JAWS standard at third base. Still, his appearance on the ballot is a reminder that when he was healthy, he was one of the best players of his era.

2024 BBWAA Candidate: David Wright
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
David Wright 49.2 39.5 44.3
Avg. HOF 3B 68.4 43.1 55.8
1,777 242 .296/.376/.491 133
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

David Allen Wright was born on December 20, 1982 in Norfolk, Virginia, the oldest of four sons of Rhon and Elisa Wright. Rhon was a police officer who worked in narcotics, vice, K-9, and homicide divisions over the course of his 32-year career, while Elisa was a teacher’s assistant. When David was born, Rhon bought a tiny Louisville Slugger bat and baseball glove and hung them in his bedroom.

Wright’s parents were devoted to supporting their sons’ development on the diamond, spending the family’s disposable income on baseball trips and travel team expenses — so long as the boys kept their grades up. Rhon found time to coach David’s Little League team, where he imparted a lesson by sticking his nine-year-old son, who had been the team’s star shortstop but had just moved up a level, in right field, wanting him to earn his way back. “He was fired because of it and banned from all Tidewater-area coaching for that move,” David joked to the New York Post’s Kevin Kernan in 2006.

The Chesapeake Bay area had become a baseball hotbed in the 1990s after a high school coach named Marvin (Towny) Townsend — a former minor leaguer in the Red Sox chain — founded the area’s first Amateur Athletic Union program for advanced players aged 10-15. Within an eight-year span, the program produced five first-round major league picks: Michael Cuddyer (ninth overall to the Twins in the 1997 draft), Wright (38th overall to the Mets in 2001), B.J. Upton (second overall to the Devil Rays in 2002), Justin Upton (first overall to the Diamondbacks in 2005), and Ryan Zimmerman (fourth overall to the Nationals in 2005). The group would remain close as they attained major league stardom, working out together in the offseason.

At Hickory High School, Wright made All-State teams three times, was Player of the Year as a senior, and was considered one of the best high school hitters available in the 2001 draft. He signed a letter of intent to play baseball for Georgia Tech, but after the Mets drafted him — as a supplemental pick for losing Mike Hampton to the Rockies in free agency — he signed for a $960,000 bonus.

Wright began his professional career with the Kingsport Mets in the Appalachian League, where he hit .300/.391/.458 and drew raves for his outstanding work ethic, his instincts and mobility at third base, and his approach at the plate. After a solid season at A-level Capital City (South Carolina), he cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list at no. 75, and climbed to no. 21 on the 2004 list after overcoming a slow start — caused by wearing himself out with his pregame workouts — to hit .270/.369/.459 with 15 homers at High-A St. Lucie.

The 21-year-old Wright moved quickly in 2004, hitting a sizzling .363/.467/.619 in 60 games at Double-A Binghamton and .298/.388/.579 in 31 games at Triple-A Norfolk. In the midst of a forgettable 71-91 season under manager Art Howe, the Mets called him up; he debuted on July 21, 2004, going 0-for-4 against the Expos, but he collected a double off Zach Day and a single off Chad Cordero the next day, and then homered off John Patterson (who had retired him twice in his debut) on July 26. In all, he made a strong showing, hitting .293/.332/.525 with 14 homers in 69 games, good for 2.2 WAR. His 119 OPS+ was the best of any Met that season.

Wright quickly solidified his claim as the Mets’ best hitter, batting .306/.388/.523 (140 OPS+) with 27 homers and 17 stolen bases in 2005. His 4.8 WAR — by far the highest total for any Met in his age-22 season or younger — led the team, which under new manager Willie Randolph (and with free agent additions Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltrán) improved to 83-79. With Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado, and Jose Valentin joining the fold and José Reyes maturing, the team improved to 97-65 and won an NL East flag in 2006, with Wright hitting .311/.381/.531 (131 OPS+) with 26 homers, 20 steals, and 4.1 WAR. He made his first of five straight All-Star teams and inked a six-year, $55 million extension in August. In his first taste of postseason action, he came up big, driving in three runs with a pair of doubles off the Dodgers’ Derek Lowe in a 6-5 win in the Division Series opener and opening the scoring with an RBI single off Greg Maddux in a Game 3 win to complete the sweep. He went just 4-for-25 in the team’s NLCS loss to the Cardinals, however, driving in their only run in Game 7.

Though they would go for naught when it came to the Mets making the playoffs, Wright put together two of the best seasons of his career in 2007 and ’08. In 2007, he became just the second Met ever to pair 30 homers and 30 steals (34, in 39 attempts) after Johnson (who did it three times from 1987–91). He hit .325/.416/.546 (149 OPS+), cracking the NL’s top 10 in batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS+. His 8.3 WAR ranked second in the league behind Albert Pujols‘ 8.7 and surpassed Beltrán’s 8.2 from the year before as the highest single-season WAR by a Mets position player. He also won the first of his back-to-back Gold Gloves. Alas, it wasn’t enough; despite Wright’s .352/.432/.602 in September, the team went 5-12 over its final 17 games while the Phillies went 13-4, snatching the division title away on the season’s final day. Wright finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, the highest placement he would ever get, though even if the Mets had won, he might have lost out to the Rockies’ Matt Holliday, who finished a close second behind the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins.

In 2008, Wright hit .302/.390/.534 (142 OPS+) with a career-high 33 homers and 6.9 WAR (fifth in the league), and again he sizzled in September (.340/.416/.577). The Mets, however, fizzled, going 89-73 but blowing a 3.5-game NL East lead from September 10 onward by going 7-10, and losing out on the Wild Card berth as well with a loss and a Brewers win on the season’s final day.

The Mets moved from Shea Stadium to Citi Field in 2009, and suffered a severe power outage in doing so given the new park’s pitcher-friendliness; as a team, they dropped from 172 homers in 2008 (tied for 13th in the majors) to 95 (dead last by 27 homers). While Wright posted nearly identical AVG and OBP numbers to 2008, his SLG dropped by 87 points as he hit .307/.390/.447 (124 OPS+) with just 10 homers, not to mention a strikeout rate that spiked from 16% to 22.7%. Worse, he suffered a concussion on August 15, when he was beaned by a fastball from the Giants’ Matt Cain. He missed 15 days and struggled in September upon returning, both with and without the oversized “Great Gazoo” helmet he wore in an attempt to prevent a second concussion, only to decide it was too uncomfortable.

The new ballpark’s cavernous dimensions had gotten into Wright’s head. “He steered the ball to right,” an NL scout told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “Even in hitter’s counts, it’s like he was trying to flip it over the second baseman’s head.” Wright concurred, saying, “At times I did settle for punching the ball the other way, rather than really trying to drive it.”

As the Mets continued to wallow in 70-something win irrelevance and dysfunction, Wright sandwiched two strong seasons around a disappointing, injury-marked one. He rebounded to 29 homers with a 131 OPS+ in 2010, though his -14 DRS limited him to 2.8 WAR. A stress fracture in his lower back — thought to have originated when he dove to make a tag on April 19 — knocked him out of action for over two months in 2011, limiting him to 102 games and 2.1 WAR. He came back strong, hitting .306/.391/.492 (144 OPS+) with 21 homers, 16 DRS, and 7.1 WAR in 2012, making the All-Star team again after missing the year before. On August 24, he ended a four-week homerless drought by connecting for his 200th career homer, a solo shot off Jordan Lyles.

After the 2012 season, the Mets first picked up Wright’s $16 million option, then reworked that into an eight-year, $138 million extension that he signed in December, covering his ages 30–37 seasons. At the time, it was the largest deal in franchise history, and in some sense, a reaction to having let Reyes depart as a free agent after the 2011 season.

Wright made his seventh and final All-Star team in 2013, hitting for a 156 OPS+ with 5.2 WAR even while missing seven weeks due to a hamstring strain. From there, however, it was mostly downhill. His slugging percentage was already below .400 when he bruised his left rotator cuff while making a rare headfirst slide on June 12, 2014. He aggravated it a couple weeks later, and missed a week. The injury hampered his swing, and continued inflammation forced him to shut down for the season after September 8; he finished with a 101 OPS+ and 2.1 WAR in 134 games.

On April 14, 2015, in the eighth game of the season, Wright strained his right hamstring while stealing second base. He landed on what was then the disabled list, and while rehabbing experienced recurring lower back tightness. In May, he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that causes inflammation of the spinal nerves and that typically occurs in individuals in their 50s or older. At the time it looked as though he might be done for the season, but Wright rehabbed diligently, altering his mechanics to use his hips and core more to alleviate stress on his back, and to focus more on his feet when throwing. He rejoined a Mets team that was in first place atop the NL East, returning to the lineup on August 24 after a rehab stint. He clubbed an upper-deck homer off the Phillies’ Adam Morgan in his first plate appearance, then scored two more runs after getting on base via a single and a walk.

Wright played regularly at third base for the rest of the season, hitting .289/.379/.434 in 38 games. The Mets won the NL East, then beat the Dodgers in the Division Series and the Cubs in the NLCS. Wright went just 1-for-16 against the Dodgers, but he drove in two of the Mets’ three runs with a single off Pedro Báez — who had just replaced Clayton Kershaw — in a Game 1 victory. Against the Cubs, he doubled in a run off the nearly untouchable Jake Arrieta in the first inning of a Game 2 victory, went 3-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored in a Game 3 win, and scored twice after walking as the Mets completed the sweep. He went just 5-for-24 in the Mets’ World Series loss to the Royals, but he did hit a two-run homer off Yordano Ventura in Game 3, then later added a two-run single in what would be the Mets’ only win of the series.

Despite the loss, the Mets had reason for optimism given that Wright opened the 2016 season at third base. He was hot for the season’s first couple of weeks, but cooled off and slipped into a 4-for-37 slump. Just as he began to emerge from it with a six-game hitting streak that included three straight games with homers, he was sidelined by a herniated cervical disc in early June, and on June 16 underwent season-ending surgery. He didn’t play at all at the major league level in 2017, attempting to rehab his neck, back and right shoulder; a rehab assignment at A-level St. Lucie lasted just three games in late August before he was shut down due to right shoulder pain. He underwent surgery on his right rotator cuff in September, then a laminotomy — a surgery to remove a piece of bone and reduce the pressure on the spine — in October.

In the wake of the surgery, the 35-year-old Wright wasn’t cleared to begin baseball activities until June 2018. He had to re-learn the mechanics of throwing, and to begin his pregame exercises to prepare his neck, back, and shoulder at 1:30 pm for a night game. Some level of pain was a constant. From a profile by The Athletic’s Marc Carig :

A good day means dull pain, the kind that can be worked around with the help of a consistent workout routine. A bad day means sharp pain, the kind that can be negotiated with, though only with a lot of time and effort. Then there are the most agonizing days, when his battered body refuses to cooperate. On one of these mornings, Wright awakened only to realize that he could not move.

Wright began a rehab assignment on August 11, but started off 0-for-14, and hit just .171/.209/.195 in 12 games, 10 at St. Lucie and two at Triple-A Las Vegas. Just as excitement built about his possible return — anything to make what would become a 77-85 season more bearable — the Mets poured cold water on it, with assistant general manager John Ricco saying, “It’s unrealistic to think he would be activated anytime soon, based on what we have seen to this point… [W]e tried to put in place a program that he could come back and show us he’s ready to be a major league player and so far he hasn’t reached that, whether it’s in terms of the playing time or playing skill.”

The truth was that the Mets, in searching for a new nadir, were putting financial concerns ahead of everything else. The team’s insurance on the contract reportedly paid them 75% of Wright’s salary ($15 million out of $20 million for 2018) once he missed at least 60 days. Activating him would reset the 60-day count, meaning the Mets would (gasp) have to pay him to play, or not play, for two months. The Mets loved David Wright, but appeared not to love him enough to pay him $3.2 million out of their own pockets for the month during an otherwise forgettable season.

Ultimately, the Mets relented. They activated Wright on September 28, when he pinch-hit for Paul Sewald against the Marlins’ Jose Urena and grounded out. The next night in front of a packed Citi Field crowd, for the first time in 854 days, he started at third base. He made one play on a weak grounder at third, and walked and popped out foul against Trevor Richards, then departed after briefly taking the field at the top of the fifth inning.

“I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m good with where I’m at right now,” Wright said afterwards. “That would be a lie and that would be false, because you love something so much and you want to continue that. I got a little taste of that, and I’m already feeling it physically. It was a wonderful night… I’d like to wear the jersey a little longer.”

After the season, with the help of Major League Baseball, the Mets and their insurance company reached a settlement on the $27 million they still owed Wright, whom they deemed physically unable to play. Wright agreed to restructure his deal to save the team some money. He was formally released and then was named a special advisor to chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen.

Because he played in just 77 games after his age-31 season, Wright wound up with fewer games played (1,585) and plate appearances (6,872) than any post-1960 expansion era position player in the Hall of Fame; he has 91 fewer games and eight fewer plate appearances than 2022 Golden Days Era Committee honoree Tony Oliva, the low man in both of those categories. He’s got a higher OPS+, WAR, JAWS, and relative ranking at his position than Oliva, who wasn’t elected until he was (maybe) 83 years old, 46 years after his final game. Wright isn’t as close to 2,000 hits as Oliva (1,917) or even this ballot’s Chase Utley (1,885), the focal point of my case for short-career, high-peak players.

But where Utley is just 0.1 short of the JAWS standard at second base (57.0) and ranks 12th at the position, Wright is 11.5 points short of the standard at third base (55.8), ranking 26th, between Ron Cey and Josh Donaldson. He’s 22 spots and nearly 27 points behind this ballot’s Adrián Beltré (71.1 JAWS), and 16 spots and over 15 point behind last year’s honoree Scott Rolen (56.9 JAWS). Of the 16 non-Negro Leagues third basemen in the Hall, Wright outranks only four of them, namely Deacon White, George Kell, Pie Traynor, and Freddie Lindstrom. At an under-represented position, he’s behind a handful of unenshrined third basemen I feel more strongly deserve elections, such as Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Buddy Bell, Graig Nettles, and Sal Bando.

I can’t really make a good case for Wright to be in the Hall, but The Athletic’s Jayson Stark took a swing at doing so, suggesting that he at least deserves a longer look instead of going one-and-done, and I have no quarrel with that. I do believe Wright was on a Hall of Fame path before the injuries destroyed his career. He was certainly one of the elite players of his era; his 44.4 WAR from 2005–13 is tied with Robinson Canó for sixth behind Pujols, Utley, Miguel Cabrera, Beltré, and Alex Rodriguez (just 0.2 behind him) and ahead of Joe Mauer and Beltrán, both of whom will be on my ballot. That’s good company, PED infractions notwithstanding.

This past summer, in checking in on the progress that current players are making towards Cooperstown, I did a little number crunching that illustrated the power of a 40.0 WAR peak score. What I found was that of the eligible players reaching 40.0 WAR during their best seven seasons — weeding out those active, not yet eligible, or not eligible at all (Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson), and adjusting downward to 32.0 WAR for catchers, whose values are constrained by limitations of playing time — nearly three-quarters are enshrined.

The 40+ Peak Club
Position 40+ Peak HOF 40+ Not Elig Pct HOF
C 16 10 2 71.4%
1B 22 13 4 72.2%
2B 16 12 3 92.3%
SS 21 15 1 75.0%
3B 20 10 5 66.7%
LF 11 9 1 90.0%
CF 19 10 1 55.6%
RF 20 14 3 82.4%
Total 145 93 20 74.4%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Peak = player’s best seven seasons using bWAR. Not Elig = includes active or recently retired players, those elected in other categories, and those on the permanently ineligible list.

Wright is just short of the mark at 39.5, but if we lower the threshold to 39 WAR, the percentage only drops to 73.4% (102 out of 163 qualifiers). Even if we don’t lower it, I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that given a normal career progression, Wright would have been capable of improving upon that score by half a win somewhere after his age-31 season; his seventh-best season was worth a modest 3.2 WAR.

As for the Mattingly comparison, while the two players do share similarities, Wright was the more valuable hitter on a career basis, though the biggest gap between them owes to the value of playing third base:

David Wright vs. Don Mattingly
Player PA OPS+ Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos WAR
Don Mattingly 7722 127 227 4 0 33 -97 42.4
David Wright 6872 133 285 14 -12 -25 33 49.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Rbat = Runs from batting, Rbase = runs from baserunning, Rdp = runs from grounding into double plays, Rfield = runs from fielding, Rpos = runs from positional scarcity

Wright is closer to the career, peak and JAWS standards at third base than Mattingly (42.4 career WAR, 35.7 peak WAR, 39.1 JAWS) is at first; Donnie Baseball is 40th at his position, 14.3 points below the standard.

Last year, my third as a Hall voter, I included just seven names on my ballot, the fewest in at least 11 years of virtual and actual ballots dating back to when I moved JAWS from Baseball Prospectus WARP to Baseball Reference WAR. Since then, I’ve thought about whether I should have used those remaining slots to cast votes for players a bit further down on my scale, whether we’re talking about pitchers such as Mark Buehrle and Andy Pettitte, PED guys such as Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, or players whose candidacies have more old-school appeal such as Jeff Kent or Rollins. I’m not sure I feel strongly enough about Wright to include him if I do have a free spot, but in the spirit of saluting what might have been, it’s something I’m considering.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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David Klein
5 months ago

My fav athlete ever if only he had stayed healthy he might have been a top ten third baseman ever, and if only the Wilpons had spent more and much more wisely. If Omar had built teams with better support players as the 07-08 teams were stars and scrubs teams with pretty bad pitching staffs those years with a washed Brian Lawrence making big starts in September and Mota and the tirefire bullpen blowing leads left and right. Wright should have won the mvp in ‘07 but the rotation and bullpen and the teams collapse in September cost him that despite him killing it down the stretch. The Mets retooled from 11-14 and he had his last great years in 12-13 and by the time the team got good his body completely collapsed though I was so happy he was healthy enough to play well down the stretch in 15 and have some big moments in game one of the nlds and game three of the World Series.

Last edited 5 months ago by David Klein