I suppose I should tell you up front that this article isn't going to say very much about analytics, or sabermetrics, or statistics. There's a little bit about that sort of thing, but that's not the thesis of this piece. Today I'd like to talk about how we talk about baseball players, their lives, and their careers.
On Saturday, word came out that New York Mets third baseman David Wright was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a condition that — basically — consists of a narrowing of the spine, often around the base of the spinal column. In football, or other contact sports, it's often considered a career-ending condition. In baseball, well, there could be some play left in the Mets' captain. You can learn a lot more about what this injury means, how it came about, and what it really is in this well-considered, well-researched column by Marc Carig of Newsday.
No one's jumping to the conclusion that David Wright's career is over, at least just yet. However, there's at least the possibility that the defining player for the Mets over the last dozen seasons has played his last meaningful game*. If this were to be the case, Wright would end his playing days with a career that is at worst enviable and, at best, a borderline Hall of Fame career.
* - One could argue that the Mets haven't played a meaningful game since 2006.
Before going any further, I'd like to go over Wright's career numbers, and why I don't quite think he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame if his career ended today.
If his career ended today, David Wright would be worthy of a reputation as one of the best offensive third basemen in the history of the game. His career OBP is .377, and his career slugging is .474. Using FanGraphs's wRC+ metric, which accounts for era and park, he hit 134 over the length and breadth of his career, or about 34% better than the league average. To put that in perspective, George Brett's career wRC+ is 132, and it was the same for Wade Boggs. Wright's wRC+ rates 15th among third basemen all-time, though that number includes "third basemen" like Harmon Killebrew and Edgar Martinez.
The problem here is that Wright only racked up those numbers in 6,566 plate appearances. For most players, including Wright, that's a great career. But Brett is a Hall of Famer, in part, because he had David Wright's career ... twice. Brett amassed 11,625 plate appearances, Boggs 10,740. Length of career certainly matters, and that reflects in Wright's wins above replacement stats.
|Name||fWAR||fWAR rank||bWAR||bWAR rank||WARP||WARP rank||JAWS||JAWS rank|
|Home Run Baker||60.1||19th||62.8||13th||N/A**||N/A**||54.8||13th|
* - Not considered a third baseman on those leaderboards; ** - WARP does not go back to Baker's career.
When considering a player for Hall-worthiness, it's easy to default to two common metrics: Jay Jaffe's JAWS (found at Baseball-Reference) or Adam Darowski's Hall of Stats. Both of these stats don't quite give Wright the seal of approval, mostly due to a simple lack of games played. JAWS gives Wright a score of 45, which is almost exactly 10 points short of the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Stats grants Hall status to anyone with a score of 100 or better -- Wright earns a 97.
Both of these metrics give Wright higher ratings for his peak (he earned several All-Star or near-MVP-caliber seasons over his career), but less for his longevity. The three major wins above replacement (WAR) metrics agree that Wright is one of the best of all time ... but not quite as good as a dozen or two other third basemen. Wright's career numbers seem to match another former New York third baseman — Robin Ventura — more than the all-time greats at the position like Ron Santo or Adrian Beltre.
Now, if Wright could spend another five years accumulating close to 10 more wins above replacement, the calculation changes. 10 more fWAR puts him at 15th all-time for third basemen, dangerously close to Edgar Martinez. 10 more rWAR makes him comparable to Sal Bando around 17th place. 10 more WARP sees him catch Santo and jump up to the No. 9 or No. 10 spot on their third base leaderboard. Most importantly, 10 wins in five years for Wright, even at a steady state of decline, is definitely in play. Well, so long as he could stay moderately healthy.
Wright also possesses more of the intangibles, as mentioned before, that give a player "extra credit", including spending his entire career as the face of one — and only one — team. He never sniffed controversy, not really. He always put on a good face for the media, was well-liked and respected by teammates. The fans liked him, even when large segments of Mets Twitter demanded he be the subject of TRAID proposals.
Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Mets fan, and despite Wright being the only player whose jersey I've ever purchased, maybe I don't believe he's a Hall of Famer. I will say this, however: Between 2007 and 2014, I was absolutely certain David Wright was a Hall of Fame third baseman. In largest part, it was due to his numbers. In smaller part, I saw all the "intangibles" put together in one package. He had the grace, the courtesy, the "good face" that makes voters swoon over the top talents of a generation. I was convinced he would spend his whole career with one team, that he would wear the (possibly last) Mets captaincy, that he would avoid controversies both large and small. He has.
And I believed that even as his skills eroded, and that injuries took their toll, he would remain a somewhat-productive ballplayer into his mid-30s. This is the part of a career that's almost necessary to make it into the Hall. You don't have to be great forever to make the Hall of Fame. You have to be great, then good, then just keep showing up. I thought David Wright could do that, I hoped David Wright could do that, and perhaps David Wright will do that.
But I took for granted that he would not suffer some sort of career-ending injury. If David Wright does not end his career, then seven years later get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, his career will be, in some small way, a disappointment to me. And that's not fair.
One of my favorite songs is a pretty popular tune by the Decemberists called The Crane Wife, Pt. 3. Like most Decemberists songs, it's a bit plaintive and melancholy. It's based off a Japanese folktale. It's a great song. Here's proof:
Anyway, the folktale goes like this: there's a guy, and he rescues a wounded crane and nurses it back to health. The crane flies away, good deed accomplished. Sometime shortly afterwards, a beautiful woman appears to this man, the two fall in love, and get married. The couple needs money, so the wife offers to weave clothes — clothes that are so special that they can sell them and make good money. But in return, the husband may never watch her making the clothes.
The couple sells the clothes, lives a comfortable life, but the husband pushes his wife to make more and more clothes, so they can earn more money. As she makes more clothes, the wife's health diminishes, but the husband —blinded by his greed — remains oblivious. Eventually, he can't stand it anymore, and he peeks in as the wife fashions her clothes. Of course, working the loom is a crane — the same crane he nursed to health earlier — plucking feathers from her own body and placing them into the weave. Secret revealed, the crane flies away and never returns.
It's not a perfect comparison by any means, but part of me feels like this is applicable to our relationship with professional athletes — most especially the way they play through pain and injury*. In this bit of metaphor, we are the husband, focused on the end result — positive performance in sport — and oblivious to the toll it takes on those who provide it for us. The terms "soft" or "selfish" get thrown around when sports radio mouths and armchair analysts talk about players taking time off for injury.
* - The two are most certainly not one and the same. David Wright had a reputation for playing through injury.
When statistical analysts look at a player's overall production, we can also often gloss over some of the human factors that drive performance. Sometimes it's that production decreases while players try to play through injury. Sometimes, there are human factors (fatigue, illness, distraction) that change the way a player's numbers play out, even as far as over a full season. When we make claims that a player isn't very good based on some statistical measure or another, that's fine — but there's also room for us to be kind to these players in the terms we use, and avoid impugning their honor or their overall facility as persons. They're people, most likely flawed, just the same as we fans and analysts. And numbers don't always account for that.
Now that David Wright may — or may not, I'm not trying to be an alarmist here — be reaching the end of his time as a productive regular in the major leagues, it might be a good time to re-focus on appreciating what we have, when we have it. The parable of the crane wife isn't exactly a perfect metaphor here; obviously, the sacrifices that ballplayers make are primarily driven to benefit themselves and/or their families first, their teams second, and we the fans last. I'm not trying to posit that Wright's playing through injury during 2014 was some great altruistic endeavor to keep the Flushing faithful engrossed in what turned out to be a slog of a season.
Instead, I just want us to take some extra time to appreciate our greats when they're in front of us. Clayton Kershaw is one of the best left-handed pitchers of his generation. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are doing things that haven't been done in 60+ years. Corey Kluber is doing a remarkable impersonation of Randy Johnson's career. But everything is fragile, and greatness is never fait accompli. Let's enjoy it while it's happening, and do our best not to take it for granted.
If we could also appreciate the little guys — the ones who struggle, but may be playing their hearts out or playing through pain — despite how terrible they might be, that could also be a good thing as well. As much as we'd like to, say, slag a Dan Uggla or Casey McGehee for being drags on their teams' performances, they probably deserve a little more kindness or even respect than we always offer them. Baseball is hard, and it's tough when anyone's livelihood starts being taken away from them.
I hope that this condition doesn't end David Wright's career — I hope he builds his case for the Hall of Fame, and becomes the second player to make the Hall based mostly on games played for the New York Mets. I hope I get to see him take the field, hit a home run, make a great play at third base.
If not, that's okay too. I had a lot of great memories of his play in the field, from Spring Training games in Port St. Lucie with my dad, to games at Citi Field for my bachelor party with my best friend, or with my wife for the 10th anniversary of September 11th.
Any way it shakes out, he was responsible for a lot of my personal enjoyment of baseball, and I hope we all appreciate our players as much as we can while we've got them. Even if they don't win us a championship, or have a Hall of Fame career after all.
. . .
Bryan Grosnick is the Lead Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.