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June 7, 2005

Can Of Corn

The Great Debate, Redux

by Dayn Perry

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About ten months ago, I wrote a column comparing the prospect status of the Devil Rays' B.J. Upton to the Mets' David Wright. I determined that Upton, mostly by dint of his younger age and the possibility that he'd stick at shortstop, was the superior prospect. My reasoning was sound at the time, but with the current season more than two months old, it's perhaps time to revisit that debate.

At present, Upton is toiling at Triple-A Durham and hitting .289 AVG/.372 OBP/.418 SLG after 59 games. There's long been speculation that he'll be moved from short to a less exacting position, and while he's still manning shortstop for the time being, he does have 25 errors on the season. That miscue total isn't a stinging indictment for a 20-year-old, but I do question whether the organization has the patience and vision to let Upton fully test his mettle at the position.

In any event, his persistent defensive struggles aren't all that's troubling. As you can see, his power numbers are also lacking this season. In 2004, Upton slugged .519 and posted an isolated power figure of .208 in 69 games at Durham; this season, those figures have dropped to .418 and .129, respectively. Since Durham, in recent years, has played as a modest-to-strong hitters' environment, there aren't any mitigating factors to be found in the tendencies of the park.

The sample size of games for this season (and for his work at Durham last year, for that matter) is too small to draw any firm conclusions, and there's always the chance that his regression is a fluke-ish occurrence or that he's playing some unreported and minor--yet numbers-dampening--injury. So while my enthusiasm for Upton is somewhat abated because of this season's performance, I still regard him as one of the handful of top young talents in the game today (since both Upton and Wright have exhausted their rookie status, we now frame the debate in terms of "top young players" rather than "top prospects"). Wright, however, is another matter altogether.

At this writing, the Mets' third baseman is hitting .307/.399/.529, which is a very nice season for a 22-year-old playing half his games in Shea Stadium. What's also notable is the improved plate discipline he's shown this season. In 218 plate appearances, Wright's drawn 26 walks, all of them unintentional. And unlike most 22-year-old major-league regulars, he hasn't logged a single plate appearance this season from the eighth spot in the lineup, which means he hasn't enjoyed any of those "NL special" unintentional-intentional walks to pass over the eight hole in favor of the pitcher's spot. So the strides in strike-zone management, at least at this early juncture, appear to be genuine.

In fact, the power and patience he's flashing put him in fairly elite company. Presently, Wright's on pace this season for 75 walks and 70 extra-base hits. In fact, since 1900 only 46 players have logged at least 75 walks in a season at age 22 or younger, and only 29 players have logged at least 70 extra-base hits in a season under those same conditions. Of course, Wright is slated to do both this season. So here then is a list of players, since 1900, to pull off the 75/70 feat before their 23rd birthday:

Player               Season          Extra-base hits          Walks
Jimmie Foxx          1930              83                     93
Eddie Mathews        1953              86                     99
Mel Ott              1929              81                     113
Ted Williams         1939              86                     107
Ted Williams         1940              80                     96
Ted Williams         1941              73                     147

The above list comprises, one and all, inner-circle Hall of Famers, luminaries of the game and members of the 500-home run club. It's certainly premature to suggest that Wright's going to maintain this manner of statistical fellow traveler throughout his career, but if trends hold this season he'll be in rarified air.

For a little more perspective on these players, let's bring park effects, run scoring environment and precise age into the mix:

Player            Home Park Factor      Lg. R/G        Opening Day Age
Foxx              104                   5.41           22 yrs, 6 mos
Mathews           94                    4.75           21 yrs, 6 mos
Ott               100                   5.36           20 yrs, 1 mos
Williams ('39)    104                   5.21           20 yrs, 8 mos
Williams ('40)    104                   4.97           21 yrs, 8 mos
Williams ('41)    102                   4.74           22 yrs, 8 mos
Wright            90*                   4.64*          22 yrs, 3 mos

(* - based on 2005 numbers to date)

As you can see, Wright's played in the stingiest park and in the lowest-scoring environment of any of these players. His projected numbers, should they come to pass, won't stack up on a raw basis to those of the Foxx, Mathews, Ott and Williams, but we must account for the fact that Wright is having a tougher go of it in terms of home park and league. So I hereby declare David Wright to be "really, really good."

The Wright/Upton debate won't be settled for many years, but it's impossible to ignore the historic season that Wright is cobbling together. We've known for a few years now what a special talent the Mets have in Wright, but it's perhaps a little surprising that he's already laying siege to history.

Related Content:  David Wright

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