David Wright was going to be a Hall of Famer before injuries derailed his career

Mets captain David Wright is once again being failed by his body. He continues to battle spinal stenosis, and the strain from a herniated disk, a condition for which he underwent surgery last summer, cascaded into his shoulder. Now he can’t throw a baseball. 

By all accounts, the veteran third baseman is as determined as ever, but he’s determined in the face of a mounting reality. Wright has played in just 75 games the past two seasons, and his status for 2017 is uncertain thanks to that right shoulder. Consider this passage from David Waldstein’s recent piece in the New York Times:

On Thursday, Wright sprinkled words like “if,” “should” and “hopefully” into his answers to various questions that all probed at the same unknown: Can he come back and play at a level acceptable to him and the team?

The doubt and precariousness in those words stand out. Nothing’s to be assumed with regard to Wright’s future with the Mets. Yes, he is still owed $67 million, but it’s entirely possible that the 34-year-old never again meaningfully contributes value on the field. In the full light of the start to Wright’s career, that’s a jarring prospect. 

And what a start it was. Obviously, it’s premature to begin eulogizing Wright’s playing days, but given that he is once again trying to parry an injury with the potential to end his career, it’s worth reflecting on the greatness that just barely slipped from his grasp. David Wright, you see, was going to be a Hall of Famer.

david-wright-mets.jpg
David Wright’s Hall of Fame career has been derailed by injury. USATSI

 

The Mets drafted Wright in 2001 with the 38th overall pick out of Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Virginia. Wright fared well in the lower rungs of the system and then announced himself in 2004 loudly by batting .341/.441/.605 at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Those are tremendous numbers in any context, and that’s especially the case considering how much younger Wright was relative to his peer group in the high minors. By late July of that year, Wright was in the majors for good (save, of course, for later minor-league rehab stints).

When a top prospect like Wright sticks in the majors for good at age 21, that itself is a sign of future excellence, and that was indeed the case with Wright. Through his age-25 season, Wright owned an OPS+ of 139 with 130 home runs in 703 games. He had also stolen 92 bases, made three All-Star teams and won a pair of Gold Gloves and a pair of Silver Sluggers. Wright had also compiled a career Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which measures/estimates a player’s overall value across all phases of the game, of 26.1. 

On that point, here’s the full list of players who compiled a WAR of 25.0 or greater through their age-25 season while also playing at least 75 percent of their games at third base ... 

Rank

Player

WAR through age-25 season

1.

Eddie Mathews

38.9

2.

Dick Allen

28.0

3.

George Brett

27.5

4.

Evan Longoria

27.4

5.

Ron Santo

27.0

6.

David Wright

26.1

So with just six names, this is a self-evidently exclusive list. Among those six names are three Hall of Famers, one ought-to-be Hall of Famer (Allen), one potential future Hall of Famer (Longoria) and Wright. 

From that point, Wright continued to perform at a high level in the medium-term. From his age-26 season through his age-30 campaign, Wright batted .293/.375/.479 (134 OPS+) while adding another 92 homers, 162 doubles and 91 steals to his running tallies. As well, he made four more All-Star teams and notched his third top-10 finish in the NL MVP balloting. Wright also pushed his career WAR up to 46.9. 

At this point, let’s take a look at primary third basemen (again, those who logged at least 75 percent of their games at third base) who recorded a WAR of 45 or higher through their age-30 seasons ... 

Rank

Player

WAR through age-30 season

1.

Eddie Mathews

73.8

2.

Ron Santo

61.8

3.

George Brett

59.1

4.

Mike Schmidt

59.0

5.

Wade Boggs

51.5

6.

Buddy Bell

49.6

7.

Scott Rolen

47.4

8.

David Wright

46.9

9.

Evan Longoria

46.4

10.

Home Run Baker

45.9

Again, Wright is walking among the third base gods. The only non-Hall of Famers on the list are Bell (who, like Wright, saw his career go over the cliff in his early 30s), Rolen (who deserves to get a plaque once he’s eligible), Wright and Longoria. At this point, Wright was within 20 WAR or so of meeting the Hall of Fame career standards for third basemen. Needless to say, he was rather easily on target to get there, assuming anything close to a normal decline phase. 

To frame it another way, let’s use Bill James’ “Favorite Toy” tool, which estimates a player’s likelihood of reaching certain statistical benchmarks based on his age, recent performance, and career totals to date. Here’s what comes out of the wash for Wright after that age-30 season in 2013 ... 

  • The Favorite Toy at that juncture tabbed Wright for 2,409 hits and a 40.0 percent chance of getting to 2,500.
  • He was projected for 332 home runs and a 12.0 percent chance of reaching 400.
  • He was projected for 564 doubles and a 33.0 percent chance of reaching 600.
  • He was projected for 277 stolen bases and a 30 percent chance of reaching 300.

Yes, the Favorite Toy is a quick-and-dirty method, but it gives you a solid idea of where a player is headed based on leading indicators. As you can see, Wright at age 30 had a real shot at 300 homers, 300 steals, 2,500 hits and maybe even 1,000 extra-base hits. Even shy of all that, he was headed for a Hall of Fame dossier. 

By that age-30 season, Wright had already dealt with concussions, hamstring maladies and even a stress fracture in his lower back. As we now know, things would get worse from there.

From 2014 through last season, a span that covered ages 31 through 33, Wright averaged just 70 games and added just 3.0 WAR to his career total. That’s far shy of the “normal decline phase” mentioned above. To put a finer point on it, the Favorite Toy tool now gives Wright a zero percent chance of reaching 2,500 hits. 

If determination and dogged persistence carried the day, then Wright would surely resume his career and wrench out some productive seasons. None of that trumps physical capabilities, however, and that’s why Wright isn’t going into the Hall of Fame. For a long time, though, that’s precisely where he was going. As ever, baseball swats away our assumptions, sometimes cruelly so. 

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