NEW YORK -- At the age of 29, and as he is left out of the industry trend of teams locking up franchise players, New York Mets third baseman David Wright has begun already a third act to his career. It is the comeback phase. After a career-worst season in 2011, when it appeared that a canyon of a ballpark was extracting the greatness from his career, Wright went back to his roots. He hit last winter at a high school batting cage with Nick Boothe, the baseball coach at Virginia Wesleyan who had worked with Wright as a teenager.
"He was like, 'What is this?'" Wright said. "He said, 'You've gotten away from what made you successful.' I had tinkered with things so much over the last few years that I got further and further away from what worked for me."
If you watched Tiger Woods hack and shank his way around Augusta National last weekend, his mind cluttered with swing thoughts, you understand what can happen when an emphasis on mechanics passes a tipping point and becomes destructive. Wright might not have been baseball's Woods, but in 2008 noted baseball writer and stats guru Bill James told 60 Minutes that if he could pick one player to start his dream team, it would be Wright, who was then embarking on his age-25 season. "He does everything I like. And he's very young," James said.
Wright then posted the best season of his career. He hit .302 with career highs in home runs (33) and RBIs (124) while winning his second Gold Glove -- and then the Mets moved out of Shea Stadium and into Citi Field, a graveyard for hitters with its distant walls that were high enough to accommodate handball or communist regimes. That's when the tinkering began. Wright said he adjusted his swing in 2009 to become more of a pull hitter, though he said his motivation was to become "a better all-around hitter -- to give the pitcher something else to think about" other than his sweet yet powerful opposite field stroke.
Wright also knew that his natural ability to drive the ball into the rightfield gap would be muted by Citi Field. Balls that would go out of Shea Stadium become outs at Citi Field.
"It does get in your head sometimes," Wright said, "in the sense that you can hit a ball really well and have nothing to show for it. So instead of having the ball go out, you're sitting on an 0-for-1, and now you're frustrated and try even harder to come away with something."
Wright should have been entering his prime years when the Mets entered Citi Field. Instead, he regressed from a hitter on a Hall of Fame track to a hitter who lost his way -- still productive, but headed in the wrong direction. Wright was a .309 hitter with a .921 OPS when Shea closed. He has been a .286 hitter with an .833 OPS since. The splits are more extreme if you consider only his home numbers, with his hitting at Citi (.284, .838 OPS) well short of his damage at Shea (.318, .958).
This season, the Mets gave in to the obvious error of the design of the park. They cut the height of the 16-foot wall in half (no architect with a basic care for baseball would ever intentionally render impossible one of the game's most exciting plays, the outfielder robbing a home run) and moved it in by as much as 25 feet in some places (such as what should be known as Wright-centerfield).
The Wall Street Journal estimated that compared to the new configuration, Wright lost nine home runs last year to the expansiveness of Citi Field -- and that in a season in which he missed 30 home games because of injuries. When I asked Wright if it were possible that Citi cost him that many home runs in an injury-shortened season, he just smiled and said coyly, "Well, could be. Could be." Wright hit .254 last year with 14 home runs.
Wright isn't ready to gauge the effect of the new dimensions -- not after just four games. But he is more enthused about the changes to his own game and that of his team. The Mets are the flavor of the month in Major League Baseball. They are off to a 4-0 start, the best in the game, a start that affords the rare New York optimist reasons to believe the team can be competitive. A healthy Johan Santana fronts a solid rotation. The remade bullpen, an area that most confounds front offices when it comes to year-to-year consistency, has been terrific. Shortstop Ruben Tejada is a smart, skillful player with wonderful potential. Monday night he was one of eight homegrown players in New York's starting lineup, with leftfielder Jason Bay the one exception. And Wright looks like his old self.
Said No. 2 hitter Daniel Murphy, who bats in front of Wright and hit a walkoff single to beat Washington Monday, "I'm getting so many good pitches to hit because he's swinging the bat so well."
With Boothe's help, Wright has made a commitment to not only return to his more natural swing and approach, but also to stick with them. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn liked to say that the better a hitter knows his own swing -- as opposed to a generic mechanical understanding of hitting -- the better his foundation for success.
"It's been kind of a curse," Wright said, "to always be trying to make adjustments. And that's what I was doing. Baseball is difficult. You're going to have games when you don't get a hit. You're going to have series when you don't get a hit. But you have to ride that out and trust that the results are coming. I didn't always do that. I was continually re-vamping my swing to hope for better results tomorrow.
"That's why this winter I was in a high school cage with a college coach while a high school coach [Roland Wright, no relation] threw me BP. It was time to go back to basics."
When I asked Wright if he noticed the change already this season, he said, "It's only a few games. I feel good. I feel comfortable."
Wright does look more relaxed in the batter's box, with what appears to be less movement and a less pronounced coiling of his body. (A pitcher can read his name and number as he coils.) The early results are encouraging for him. With an RBI single Monday against Washington, Wright is off to a 7-for-12 start with one home run and four RBIs, leaving him just four RBIs from replacing Darryl Strawberry as the Mets' all-time leader in that category -- an impressive accomplishment for someone who still is yet to turn 30.
Indeed, the combination of Citi Field's dimensions, the injuries, the Mets' collapses of 2007 and 2008 and the team's three straight fourth-place losing seasons since then have left Wright, once the darling of James' sabermetric eye, as an underappreciated asset. Baseball teams eagerly have locked up their young, iconic players in recent years to keep them away from even the possibility of free agency -- for example, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez in Colorado, Ryan Braun in Milwaukee, Matt Cain in San Francisco, Joey Votto in Cincinnati, Ian Kinsler in Texas and, most similarly to Wright, Ryan Zimmerman in Washington.
Zimmerman, 27, and Wright are friends from their amateur playing days in Virginia. Both were scheduled to hit free agency after the 2013. (The Mets hold a $16 million option on Wright for 2013 with a $1 million buyout; it would seem a no-brainer to make a $15 million commitment rather than let Wright walk.) Both slogged through down 2011 seasons that were shortened by injuries and were nearly identical:
Here's the difference: Zimmerman went to the Nationals and essentially asked to be made a Nat for life before spring training ended. The club complied -- and Zimmerman was made the highest paid third baseman in history this side of Alex Rodriguez. He will be paid an average of $16.7 million per year from ages 29-34 (folding in a personal services provision into the guaranteed payments).
Where does this leave Wright? With more leverage than Zimmerman, except for the major issue of the financial distress of the Mets' organization. Wright (.301/.381/.509) is a more accomplished hitter than Zimmerman (.288/.354/.478). He already has five 100 RBI seasons; only one active NL player had more such seasons before age 30 (Carlos Beltran, now a 34-year-old in his first season with St. Louis, who had six). His market value, even if an extension begins at age 31, is greater than Zimmerman's value.
The Mets, with hat in hand this winter looking for $20 million checks from investors, decided to wait to see how Wright plays this year before committing more than $100 million to him for an extension. Their dilemma is that Wright is too valuable an asset to trade (because attendance is so critical to the Mets' bottom line this year) but too expensive to lock up. Trouble is, Wright, while playing in a slightly smaller Citi Field with a more relaxed approach to hitting, may become even more expensive with a comeback season. Both the Mets and Wright prefer the relationship to continue, but the fact is neither side has yet to make the kind of proactive move Zimmerman and the Nationals did.
Asked if he expected to follow Zimmerman's lead with a long-term commitment to the only organization he's known, Wright said, "That's a better question for the front office. My preference is I'd like to win here. To answer quite honestly, I don't know what the future holds. I'd like to think I'm part of the plan here, but that topic hasn't been approached.
"The ball is in the front office's court. The team has the control. This is all that I know. I enjoy it here. I enjoyed a small taste of winning here and want to get back to that. After going through the difficulties of the last few years, it would be nice to get back to see the other end of the spectrum again here. But a lot of it depends on how we play as a team. I want to win. So I can't say what's going to happen. I just don't know. I haven't heard anything from the front office and I haven't had any discussions with my agent about it."
The possibility of a trade is remote. The Mets need his star power, and his trade value is diminished by a clause that allows him to drop the option year if he is traded -- essentially turning him into a rental player on the trade market. If nothing else, the first week of the season has allowed the Mets to better imagine their best-case scenario: that Wright, with the shine restored to his game in a fairer ballpark with a more competitive team around him, already is in a better place.