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May 21, 2012

Painting the Black

David Wright's Dramatically Improved Decision Making

by R.J. Anderson

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David Wright will qualify for free agency at the end of 2013, barring a contract extension. Coming up with a superior third baseman to hit the open market over the past decade proves difficult. The best candidates are Adrian Beltre (thrice if you include his post-Seattle dip) and Alex Rodriguez (though he never seemed to entertain non-Yankees suitors). Wright is a five-time, soon-to-be six-time, All-Star, a two-time winner of the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at third base, and a three-time top-10 finisher in MVP voting. Franchise third basemen at Wright’s age (he turns 30 in December) seldom hit free agency.

Wright’s .412/.513/.626 line serves two purposes: it paces the Mets and perpetuates the contract year myth. Invariably, Wright’s line will deflate. His batting average will drop below .400, his on-base percentage below .500, his slugging percentage below .600. Citi Field’s walls receded, but Wright isn’t likely to blow past his previous best season (.325/.416/.546 in 2007) by nearly .170 OPS points. But that reality aside, there is reason to think Wright’s gaudy start holds some genuine improvement. 

A hitter typically shows progress in one of three ways. He can make more contact per swing, he can make better contact per swing, or he can make smarter swings. The first two are easy to discover. The latter takes some work. Walk and strikeout rates are the most commonly used proxies in the hunt for quantifying plate discipline, but even they can fall short. Take Wright. He is walking at a career high rate; there is a problem, though, as raw walk rate ignores the six intentional walks to his credit. Wright’s seasonal high is 13 and he could eclipse that mark by a fair margin if teams continue giving him four wide.

If those numbers alone can’t determine if Wright has improved his plate discipline then what can? A metric developed by Mike Fast. Fast introduced “correct” decision rate last July. The long and short of it goes like this: a batter gets credit for swinging at pitches within the strike zone and for taking pitches outside of it. Only no- and one-strike count pitches factor in because two-strike counts can result in protect mode swings. The intent is to look at pitches where the batter dictated his choice rather than the environment around him.

Fast put quotation marks around correct for a reason and that’s because no one metric can give a completely accurate look at a batter’s plate discipline. Take these two scenarios that poke holes at “correct” decision rate. Wright receives credit if he takes a swing at a 3-0 sinker low and away in the zone. He also receives credit if he ignores an umpire’s large zone and takes a 1-1 pitch off the plate for a strike. Context is thrown out the window with “correct” decision rate, but acknowledging a metric’s limitations isn’t the same as labeling it useless; knowing what a tool can’t tell you is sometimes as important as knowing what it can tell you.

The following table can be created using Wright’s average strike zone coordinates from this season, and nearly 500 pitches of data from Joe Lefkowitz’ PITCHf/x site through Friday:

Season

Swing% In Zone

Take% Out of Zone

“Correct” Decision %

2010

59%

80%

70%

2011

57%

83%

70%

2012

57%

92%

77%

Despite little change when it comes to swings within the zone, Wright’s “correct” decision rate is up. The increase stems from an improved ability to discern between balls and strikes. What makes Wright’s out-of-zone take rate so impressive is the company he keeps: wet newspaper hitters like Jamey Carroll, Luis Castillo, and Brett Gardner had similar rates when Fast calculated last year. That from a player who has good contact skills, but also can put a charge into a baseball. If Wright isn’t a complete hitter then he sure is close.

All of this seems to tell us that Wright has sharpened his ball recognition skills at least a little; however, the one piece of the data left unaddressed is the sample size involved. Contact and swing rates tend to stabilize quickly and share common skills with “correct” decision rate. There’s no point in making an assumption without doing the research, but it would make sense for this metric to stabilize over the season’s first month for regulars, too.

Sandy Alderson is facing a tough situation with Wright. The New York market isn’t used to having stars leave for other places unless those stars are fading or replaced by suns. To have Jose Reyes and Wright walk in back-to-back winters would not help a team that could use a victory in the public relations battle. Wright’s injury history cannot be ignored, but neither can his talent. Wright is one of the two or three best third basemen in the National League and seems to be improving in a way that could make him even more valuable.  In other words, the Mets might be the only team in the league opposed to letting Wright walk. 

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Adrian Beltre,  David Wright,  Sandy Alderson

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