David Wright is hurting but insists on playing through the pain, and it would be a mistake for the Mets to let him keep doing that.
After leaving Sunday's game against the Dodgers in the third inning, David Wright has sat out the Mets' past two contests against the Braves, ostensibly due to neck spasms. Amid a career-worst season, the reality — acknowledged by multiple members of the Mets' brass — is that the 31-year-old third baseman should probably be on the disabled list, particularly at a time that the team is playing out the string. But thanks to misguided machismo, he’s likely to come back sooner rather than later, despite the fact that it won’t help the Mets, either in the short or long term.
Wright came into the season sporting a nifty career .301/.382/.506 line, but he's en route to across-the-board lows with his .266/.324/.368 performance. With eight homers, he’s threatening to finish in single digits in the first time in his 11-year major league career as well. Thanks to excellent defense (+13 runs according to Defensive Runs Saved) he's still been worth 2.4 Wins Above Replacement, but for a seven-time All-Star making $20 million in the second year of his eight-year, $138 million extension, it's been a forgettable season.
Prior to his current sit-down, Wright had played in 123 of the Mets' 131 games. Aside from a seven-game absence in late June and early July, he had missed just one, and started all but two. That week-long absence was caused by a bruised left rotator cuff, sustained while sliding headfirst (something he doesn't normally do) on June 12 and then aggravated while attempting to make a couple plays in the field on June 26; he sat out the next seven games. His power numbers were already down at the time, but they've taken an even bigger dip since; he was hitting .277/.333/.396 with six homers and a .332 batting average on balls in play before he sat, compared to .244/.306/.315 with two homers and a .283 BABIP since. His last homer came on July 11; since then, he's slumped to .224/.284/.252 in 155 PA, producing just four extra-base hits, all doubles, in that span. He’s gone 62 PA since the last one.
On Tuesday, Wright conceded for the first time that his shoulder is still causing discomfort, and that it won't fully heal until after the end of the season, though he refused to blame his ongoing slump on the injury. Via the Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond:
"Is the shoulder 100%? No," Wright said. "But that takes rest, and that's what the offseason's for. But is that the reason that I'm struggling the way I'm struggling? No."
According to batting coach Lamar Johnson, the injury is affecting Wright's swing. Via the Newark Star-Ledger's Mike Vorkunov, Johnson said, "It's his left shoulder and that's where you swing starts, with your left side... It's just been a real tough haul because it's hard to get a consistent swing when you're in pain a little bit."
According to the Mets, tests have shown that Wright's shoulder is structurally sound, meaning that he isn't playing through a fracture or a tear. But since it's just a bruise, thus far he's been unwilling to go on the disabled list. Again via Diamond:
General manager Sandy Alderson said Tuesday that the Mets probably could justify putting Wright on the DL against his wishes, but "usually when you put somebody on the disabled list, they have to agree with the placement."
…"Our decision is predicated essentially on feedback from the patient… David has said it's not a factor. Now, should we discount that somewhat? Probably. He said it's not a factor, so we've accepted that and agreed."
While I'm generally wary of delving into any kind of insight regarding a player's mental state, Wright's reluctance to go on the DL isn't hard to understand. As the team captain and de facto face of the franchise, he's charged with setting an example, and likely doesn't want to be perceived as quitting on his team even though the Mets are 62-71 overall and 10-15 in August; they haven't tasted .500 since May 13 and appear bound for their sixth straight losing season.
Moreover, having served two extended stints on the DL in the previous four seasons — 67 days for a stress fracture in his back in 2011, 48 days for a hamstring strain last year — Wright may not want to provide additional fuel for critics who accuse him of being soft. After all, Wright does play in a media market where Daniel Murphy's paternity leave drew hot air from media gasbags, and over the years, he himself has been exposed to similarly toxic clouds while sitting for more serious injuries.
Alderson may not want to act against his highest-paid player's wishes, but this is a case where it's in his best interests to do so — all the more given that the Mets have gained notoriety in the past decade for under-treating and mishandling serious injuries (Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Ryan Church, Jose Reyes, Johan Santana, et cetera). Competition-driven athletes make lousy doctors, and it's the team's job to play the heavy by protecting a player from his competitive impulses. The Mets have every reason to look out for the long-term interests of a player to whom they still owe more than $100 million. Even if Wright isn't risking much additional harm by playing through the bruise, in compensating for his pain, he's prone to developing bad habits with his swing that may be harder to undo the more they're reinforced. It's not necessary to shut him down for the season; it could be beneficial for Wright to back off for even a few days for a reset that's as much mental as physical.
Furthermore, the team has developed a capable backup in utilityman Eric Campbell, a 27-year-old rookie who has made the 11 starts at the hot corner not taken by Wright, and has hit .293/.341/.401 in 173 PA overall. Finding out whether Campbell can legitimately sustain that kind of performance is something in which the team should be invested, because he may well provide a low-cost solution in a larger role for 2015 and beyond, or turn into a desirable trade commodity.
It's one thing for a player to grind through injury when his team is contending for a playoff spot, another to do so when it’s simply playing for pride. Even when the stakes are high, playing through serious injury can carry a high cost. Though he won his second straight AL MVP award last year, Miguel Cabrera was a shadow of himself down the stretch while playing through a variety of abdominal injuries that led to offseason surgery. He never went on the DL, then slugged .333 in September and .405 in the postseason as his team, which for months appeared bound for the World Series, instead came up short.
In the Those Who Forget History department, Cabrera has again seen his power numbers suffer this year while playing at far below 100 percent; he's slugging .357 with one homer in his past 30 games, a span during which the Tigers have gone 14-17 (he sat for one game) and not coincidentally fallen from atop the AL Central to half-a-game back in the Wild Card hunt. We don't know whether a DL stint could have healed him fully, but it's not a difficult assumption to think a substantial bit of rest could have improved his performance.
There's far less than a playoff spot stake for Wright and the Mets, but even so, almost nothing positive is likely to come of him putting up a sub-.600 OPS while playing through pain. Whether it's for a few days, a couple weeks or the remainder of the season, the Mets need to bite the bullet and sit him until he’s healthier.