Meet the All-or-Nothing David Wright

You don’t need to know what spinal stenosis is to know you don’t want it, and to know it’s bad that David Wright has it. No major-league baseball player would choose the condition for himself, and for Wright, the diagnosis raised innumerable questions about the state of his career. When this very regular season opened, there was chatter in the first series that Wright looked stiff, that he looked exploitable and weak. Early on, it looked like Wright could and would be a liability. It would be a most unfortunate turn for a beloved former superstar.

Let’s be clear: David Wright still has spinal stenosis. That isn’t going to change. He is very much limited, but at the same time, as I write this, Wright is sitting on a 136 wRC+, about dead even with his lifetime mark of 134. Wright might be compromised, but Wright has also made things work, and he’s done that by focusing on maximization. David Wright has turned himself into an all-or-nothing hitter.

I feel like this is almost too easy to write. All the evidence is there, and it points in one direction, one direction that makes complete and total sense given what Wright is going through, physically. About pitchers, people say arms have only so many bullets. You could say that about Wright, only with swings in place of pitches. Wright can’t take a thousand hacks a day. He doesn’t have it in him, so when he does take a swing, he wants to make it count. Another way of expressing a focus on maximization is a focus on efficiency. Wright wants his swings to be selective, efficient, and powerful.

To start with, a heat map. Here are Wright’s swing tendencies. On the left, Wright from 2013 – 2015. On the right, Wright this season. This is from the catcher’s perspective, so keep that in mind as you glance:

wright-swings

Wright has dramatically tightened up his swing zone. More than before, he’s spitting on pitches away. He’s spitting on pitches down. Obviously, pitchers will throw pitches wherever they throw them, but as far as 2016 Wright is concerned, the interesting stuff is over the middle of the plate. Wright has used two-thirds of his swings on pitches over the middle, and not only is that an increase from his history — his rate ranks third-highest in baseball, behind only Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders. Wright knows what he wants to swing at, and more often than not, he’s been able to stay in his own preferred zone.

That’s part of it. Here’s another part. These are the same heat maps, only instead of swing rate, these show contact rate. You’ll, uh, see what’s going on.

wright-contact

There’s reduced contact almost everywhere. Up and in? Reduced. Up and away? Reduced. Down and away? Reduced. Down and in? Reduced. Down the middle, even? Reduced. There’s still a hot spot there, about thigh-high over the inner third, but Wright is swinging through plenty more baseballs. In isolation, that’s bad, but this is just a consequence of his adapted approach.

David Wright is swinging less, but he’s swinging harder, and he’s swinging to put the ball in the air. There are 180 hitters who have batted at least 100 times in each of the last two seasons. Let’s follow Wright’s progress, shall we?

  • Groundball rate: Wright’s rate of grounders has dropped by 14 percentage points. This is the third-biggest drop of everyone in the sample.
  • Swing rate: Wright’s rate of swings has dropped by seven percentage points. This is the ninth-biggest drop.
  • Contact rate: Wright’s rate of contact has dropped by 14 percentage points. This is the single biggest drop.
  • Hard-hit rate: Wright’s rate of solid contact has increased by 15 percentage points. This is the second-biggest increase.

All the evidence, again, points to one place. If you prefer some newer-style data, last year Wright ranked in the 66th percentile in average batted-ball speed on flies and liners. So far this year he ranks in the 92nd percentile. Maybe I’m wrong in saying that Wright is actually swinging harder. His maximum bat speed is his maximum bat speed. But he’s seemingly not ever cutting down on his swing. He’s apparently attacking with his full swing more consistently, because that gives him a chance to make dangerous contact.

Wright physically can’t cover the plate like he used to. He’s adjusted to that reality by focusing on the pitches he can get to. With his approach and swing, he’s ending up with an awful lot of strikeouts, but the strikeouts also come with walks and homers, and the thing all of those have in common is very little running. Of course, when you walk, you have to prepare to run, and when you homer, you have to jog, but Wright is a big-leaguer — he can’t be totally inactive. He can do only as much as he can, and David Wright at the moment remains a threatening hitter. It’s a testament to rolling with the punches.

In the field, Wright isn’t himself. He can’t be. At least, the definition of “himself” has changed. In the field, he’s not what he was. At the plate, he’s also not what he was, but he’s still good. He’s still disciplined, and he’s still strong, and though he’s a hell of a lot more strikeout-prone, there’s productivity in between the whiffs. Players everywhere are always making adjustments, but Wright’s have managed to keep alive a potentially Hall-of-Fame career.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
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Roger McDowell Hot Foot

So far there’s been a lot more all and a lot less nothing than I was expecting after the diagnosis, anyhow. It’s not every major physical problem that you can “adjust” a hitting approach around, so this is great to see. One thing I’m trying to pay attention to with Wright — and that I’d like to see some research on — is weather. He looks noticeably more pained and physically tighter when playing in the cold. I’d love to see his hitting splits below 55F or so post-diagnosis.