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Breaking Down David Wright's Defense

I’ll get right to the issue: David Wright’s defense, is it good or bad?  The answer is that recently, it hasn’t been very good, but in the past, it has been.  So what happened?  Clearly Wright can still make great plays in the hot corner, like his great diving stop and fake-out of Cameron Maybin on Wednesday and his slick double play in yesterday’s game.  However, Wright also botched a routine ground ball in yesterday’s affair that led to a run, and has made a slew of throwing errors over the past couple of seasons.  Using some sabermetric tools, I’ll try to break down Wright’s defense over the past few years.

First though, Wright does commit his fair share of errors.  Using fielding percentage only as a means to evaluate fielding has its flaws, because it’s impossible to make an error on a ball you can’t reach, and most teams would rather have the fielder with the better range.  However, there is no denying that Wright has struggled in recent years with errors more so than in the past.  Actually, Wright has always been a little error-prone.  His first full year in the Majors, Wright committed 24 errors, leading to a fielding percentage of .948.  He improved in 2006 and won Gold Gloves in 2007 (21 errors, .954 fielding percentage) and 2008 (16 errors, .962 fielding percentage).  From 2009 to the present, Wright has made a total of 47 errors, with 24 of them coming on throws and five on fielding plays.  So Wright does commit errors, but that hasn’t been the biggest reason for his defensive woes.  Sabermetric tools share some insight.

2007 was Wright’s best defensive year.  Not only did he win the Gold Glove, but he posted a career best Ultimate Zone Rating of 6.3 runs above average and a career high 13 defensive runs saved.  When breaking down both those numbers, the metrics, although measured differently, reveal the same thing: Wright had range.

FanGraphs breaks down Wright’s UZR into three components: double play runs above average, range runs above average and error runs above average.  In 2007, Wright was worth 0.3 double play runs below average and 0.5 error runs below average.  However, he was worth 7.1 range runs above average, leading to his more than respectable UZR total.  In short, Wright wasn’t the best at turning double plays and he made some errors, but he got to a lot of balls and ultimately was a very positive factor on defense.  2008 was similar, in which Wright posted a UZR of 5.1, with his range (5.1 runs above average) being his greatest defensive asset (in ’08, Wright was worth 0.7 double plays runs below average but 0.7 error runs above average).

The defensive runs saved metric demonstrates similar results as UZR.  For a corner infielder, defensive runs saved is broken down into bunt runs saved and plus/minus runs saved, or how many more plays a fielder makes when compared to his counterpart (essentially, range).  In 2007, Wright was worth three bunt runs saved above average and ten plus/minus runs saved above average.  In 2008, he was still worth five bunt runs saved above average, but only two plus/minus runs saved above average, leading to a total of five defensive runs saved that season.  Just like UZR, defensive runs saved illustrates that Wright was a good fielding in ’07 and ’08 because his range was above average.  In 2009, however, things started to change.

In 2009 and 2010, Wright posted UZRs of -10.0 and -10.6, quite a drop off from his award winning years.  Wright struggled in all areas of his defense, but what is shocking is his loss of range.  In 2009, Wright was worth 7.9 range runs below average, and in 2010 that number fell to 10.8 range runs below average.  He still was below average in terms of turning double plays (1.1 and 0.7 double plays runs below average during those two years) and errors sometimes hurt him also (1.1 errors runs below average in ’09 but 0.9 error runs above average in ’10), but range (or lack thereof) was by far the biggest culprit.  Defensive runs saved illustrates similar findings.  In ’09 and ’10, Wright was worth thirteen runs and ten runs below average, respectively.  Specifically, he was worth eleven plus/minus runs and ten plus/minus runs below average in those two seasons.

The sample size is small in 2011, but Wright is having a similar season defensively.  His UZR of -9.4 is due mostly to his 8.3 range runs below average, and his twelve defensive runs saved below average is due to entirely to his plus/minus rating.  The errors are still there, but Wright’s recent loss of range is the most pressing issue.

As for the throwing errors, the positive thing to take away is that they are physical, rather than mental mistakes.  As evidenced by his play against the Padres and his nice fielding plays last night, Wright has the talent and baseball smarts/instincts to still be a good defensive third baseman.  Why his range has diminished in the past few years, I can’t say exactly, but there is some comfort in knowing that the mistakes, especially the throwing/fielding errors, can be fixed.

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