So far here at Knuckleballs it’s been all about pitchers. Well, I like to see runs scored too and one guy who’s good at making that happen is David Wright.
Wright’s first full season in the majors was in 2005. In his first four seasons, he played an average of 158 games, he it 0.311/0.394/0.534 with an average of 29 home runs, 42 doubles, 82 walks, and 115 strikeouts. In 2009, he hit 0.307/0.390/0.447, with 10 home runs, 39 doubles, 74 walks, and 140 strikeouts while playing in only 144 games thanks to a Matt Cain fastball to the head. Just about everything looks exactly the same, so the purpose of this post is simple: what happened to David Wright’s power in 2009, and will it continue in 2010?
First, the strikeouts – Wright went from striking out 19 percent of the time in his first four full seasons to almost 27 percent in 2009. He saw the same distributions of pitches he had in the past, roughly 60 percent fastballs, 27 percent sliders and curveballs, and 13 percent other junk. He did a good job of swinging only at strikes, as 80 percent of his swings came on pitches within the strike zone; again this number was in line with his career totals. He swung at roughly the same number of pitches per at-bat, but made slightly less contact (about 3 percent) at both pitches in the strike zone and out of the strike zone. As a result, his “balls in play” percentage went down from 67 percent to 63 percent. This might help explain why he hit fewer home runs, but not completely; it also makes no sense given the fact that his batting average didn’t drop.
Next I looked in to Wright’s batted ball types; his percentages of fly balls, ground balls, and line drives. He set a career high for line drive percentage, at almost 26 percent. He hit fewer fly balls, which as I’ve mentioned become hits less than ground balls and line drives. This is obviously part of the reason he was able to keep the batting average up while fitting fewer home runs. On top of hitting fewer fly balls, his home run percentage on fly balls though fell from 16 percent to 7 percent, a drastic drop. Had only one of these changes happened, his batting average would have risen (fewer fly balls) or dropped (fewer home runs) slightly; something else is still at play here.
I also wanted to see if there was a difference in where Wright was hitting the ball. Sure enough, his splits changed from his career numbers slightly. In his first four seasons, Wright pulled 27 percent of the balls he hit in play and in 2009, that number dropped to 24 percent. Given that it’s very difficult to hit balls out of the park up the middle and to the opposite field, this also helps to explain the power outage. We’ll come back to this at the end of the post.
Given all of this information, I wanted to see if maybe for one season, Wright had a significant talent drop in power while being lucky with respect to hits dropping in. Wright’s career BABIP through 2008 was 0.346, which means that when he hits the ball in play (basically negating strikeouts and home runs), that’s his batting average. For pitchers, this number hovers around 0.300, given that they face a cross-section of major league hitters throughout the year.
Hitters have much different percentages between them, which reflect their batted ball types. The National League average for line drives by all batters in 2009 was 0.727.; the averages for ground balls and fly balls were 0.235 and 0.224, respectively. Wright’s career averages for the three batted ball categories were 0.764, 0.266, and 0.278 going into 2009. Wright profiles as a high BABIP player, given his ability to hit a significant percentage of his fly balls over the fence (though not included in BABIP, this reduces fly ball outs) and run well. In 2009, these number took a shocking turn – 0.757, 0.311, and 0.275. His overall BABIP was 0.400, which easily led the major leagues (Ichiro finished second at 0.384). In 2009, either David Wright hit a lot of hard ground balls, or he was pretty lucky to keep his batting average above 0.300. It would seem difficult to hit harder ground balls while hitting weaker fly balls, but it’s possible.
So now I think we’ve established most of the how; the question of why still lingers. In 2009, the Mets moved from Shea Stadium to Citi Field, and I was curious as to what impact this had on Wright’s season. Upon trying to find the data to conduct this study, I learned most of the research had been done for me. In The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010, research showed that had Wright’s games been played at Shea Stadium, nine home runs were converted into seven doubles, one single, and one out.
That might explain what happened at home, but doesn’t give us a true answer for the full season. Through 2008, Wright had hit 130 career home runs, 70 of which came at Shea Stadium. In 2009, Wright hit five home runs at Citi Field and five in road games. Even accounting for the nine “extra” home runs Wright might have hit, we’re still only at nineteen home runs. The only other thing I can think of is that the Citi Field dimensions got to Wright a little bit; they might be to blame for him changing his swing to fit the park’s larger dimensions, but they certainly didn’t zap his power completely. That’s really something you can only know if you’re David Wright; it might also explain the shift in the distribution of hits across the field if he changed his hitting philosophy.
In 2009, David Wright was lucky that his ground balls went for so many hits; the fifty point increase in ground ball batting average put him in Ichiro-range and seems unsustainable. He hit fewer home runs, but nothing indicates that he was unlucky in this regard. It’s possible that at age 26, David Wright lost the ability to hit home runs. My bet for 2010 though, is that David Wright at age 27 will hit a bunch of home runs and do his part to make Met fans forget about the nightmare that was 2009. I think we saw one of the “flukiest” seasons that’s occurred to a star player in a long time, and we should appreciate Wright’s greatness for years to come.