Mets hope David Wright is no Don Mattingly


I know I’m not the only Mets fan who put their first-born in a David Wright shirt as soon as possible. For me the year was 2006, the year the Mets seemed like a team of destiny before Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright broke our hearts. David Wright was a 23 year-old all-star who would eventually go down in history as the greatest player in Mets history. Today the shirt is a hand-me-down worn by my youngest and David Wright is a bit more complicated.

From his rookie season in 2004 through 2010, David Wright was on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He was a .300 hitter who got on base at a .400 clip and drove the ball enough for 25 home runs a year and an OPS over .900. Wright was the prototypical #3 hitter, good for 100 runs and 100 RBI, with 20 stolen bases thrown in for good measure. For those years, he averaged a 4.5 WAR.

Then Wright broke his back in early 2011. He somehow played with it for another month before the official diagnosis. David Wright is a gamer. Which tells you how much pain he must be dealing with today as spinal stenosis has kept him out of the lineup since April.

That 2011 season was pivotal for the New York Mets. It was the year that Captain America showed he was human, and it was also the year that we bid goodbye to Jose Reyes. The won-loss record had already cratered after the collapse years of 2007 and 2008, and the team was in the midst of what would be six straight losing seasons.

Wright returned from the injury later in 2011. Since that time his numbers have not been the same. Playing in 10% fewer games per year, Wright’s RBI per game was down 20% and he lost almost half of his home runs. His batting average and BOP haven’t slipped too badly, but he runs less than he used to. Here’s the catch – since the injury Wright has averaged a 5.2 WAR.

A closer look at the pre-injury years reveals that Wright actually averaged a 6.0 WAR before the move to Citi Field, but he had an average 3.0 WAR in the first two years after the move to the new park. There are two ways to look at his production since the back injury. One is to see that he averaged a 5.2 WAR from 2012-2014. Another way is to see that his WAR the last three years has gone from 7.0 to 5.9 to 2.7.Did David Wright adjust his game after two years at Citi Field, or is he a player seeing his talents slowly drained by a deteriorating back?

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Things are looking up in Flushing in 2015. The good vibes at Citi Field have allowed us as fans to not dwell on Wright’s health or his future. Bluntly, we are getting a taste of what life would be like without him. I am not writing this to micturate on your morning flakes. The captain wants desperately to be a part of this organizational upswing, and he’s about to get his chance.

But what kind of player will David Wright be when he comes back? My mother-in-law has spinal stenosis and she can’t babysit on back-to-back days anymore. We need to adjust our expectations for Wright and he has to do the same for himself. This was exactly the message relayed by Don Mattingly when the two spoke by phone earlier this year.

In the first five years of his career, Donny Baseball’s numbers were possibly even better than Wright’s. Think somewhere between Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera. He didn’t run, but he was a .330 hitter, good for well over 100 RBI and had an OPS over 1.000. However, after his own back injury, his drop-off was even more severe than Wright’s. His HR/PA went down more than 50% – his power basically evaporated. Over his final eight seasons, he was no longer a .300 hitter and he was on the field even less than Wright, playing 20% fewer games per season than his prime. Mattingly was a 2.1 WAR player after the injury.

The worst part is, Mattingly got hurt just as his team was getting very good and on the verge of a historic run. The Yankees of the 90’s had an emerging, young core that made them exciting and dangerous. Sound familiar? Many people have invoked Don Mattingly‘s history when considering Wright’s back injury and looking for a benchmark for his future performance. I don’t like the comparison.

When Wright returns it will feel like he’s been traded to a new team. He will no longer be a solo act, but an addition to a deep lineup. It’s logical to think he may benefit from an adjusted role. Wright’s numbers after two down years at Citi suggest he had already begun to adjust his game. Terry Collins has already said that Wright will hit second in the lineup when he returns which should fit the profile of a patient, line drive, contact hitter rather than a middle of the lineup thumper.

In years past Wright could not come out of the lineup or else the Mets would field a AAA lineup. Thanks to solid acquisitions, Terry Collins can now give Wright more days off to help manage his back issues. Mets fans’ most recent crush, Wilmer Flores, is on board to be Wright’s caddy when he’s not in the lineup. Jose Uribe and Kelly Johnson also wait in the wings to fill in as necessary. Batting second, Wright will slot between Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes most games, also leaving some of the heavy lifting to Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda and Travis d’Arnaud.

With a healthy back, I believe Wright may more closely parallel George Brett than Don Mattingly from here on out. Brett’s line drive approach helped him remain a .300 hitter even as he advanced in age. He didn’t need to hit more than 20 home runs to average a 3.4 WAR in his thirties. Brett also made a position change to first base at age 34 in order to stay on the field more often, something the Mets may have to consider down the road to protect Wright’s back. So far this year, the Mets’ third basemen have been good for a 0.9 WAR to rank 15th in MLB. Wright can still be a game-changer.

I’m betting on a successful return for Wright. I believe the adjustments he’s made will only be expedited by the time off and a more cautious approach. There is no more pressure on him to be the main run producer. Gone are the days when Wright would hear loud whispers about Citi Field dimensions and a lack of home runs. All he has to do is groove line drives into that right center gap and keep the train rolling. Next man up.

Wright’s legacy is secure no matter what happens. We chose him and he chose us (and the $100M contract). David Wright deserves to be a part of this playoff run. And, as well as things are going for the team right now, the Mets need Wright. They don’t need a 30-30 stat-stuffer, but they are a better team with him. And he’ll be a better player because the Mets are a better team. I’m all in on Wright. He’s not done making Mets history.