For all the plaudits and accolades surrounding Mets third baseman David Wright, is he turning into the club's strikeout king?
After going 0-for-4 with four whiffs yesterday—including a debatable called third strike against San Francisco closer Brian Wilson that led to Wright getting tossed from the game—the signs are there for all to see.
Wright is frustrated, and fans are getting increasingly tired of his inability to put bat on ball.
His loyal supporters point to him being a notoriously slow starter, someone who will heat up in June, but the Mets can't afford him to turn in sub-par performances every night until then.
Wright has now struck out at least once in 25 of his 31 games this year. He is batting .500 (9-for-18) in the six games when he hasn't struck out, but .214 (9-for-42) in games where he has fanned at least twice.
His 41 strikeouts rank second in the Major Leagues right now, and you know the situation is dire when Mark Reynolds is looking up the table at you.
Yes, that Mark Reynolds who struck out a league-leading 223 times last year.
I'm not interested in this "face of the franchise" rhetoric right now, because he's not delivering in the way that a leader should.
The fact remains that he has always been a player who has a tendency to strike out, and these problems have become exacerbated over the last few seasons.
"But he's an All-Star," I hear people cry.
Yes, but so were Dave Kingman and Tommie Agee, who share the all-time Mets franchise record for strikeouts in a season.
Similarly, Darryl Strawberry was a seven-time All-Star in his eight years at the Mets.
He struck out more than 100 times in all but one season with the club, averaging 120 each year and setting the record for strikeouts in a career.
Wright, in his sixth full season as a Met, has seen his strikeout tally creep up each year since 2006, culminating in 140 Ks in 144 games last season. Through 31 games in 2010, he is on pace to shatter his own record once again.
He is already fifth on the Mets all-time strikeout list, and he is only 12 behind Mookie Wilson, a career .274 hitter, despite playing some 238 games fewer.
Wright will undoubtedly overtake Cleon Jones for third before the end of the season, and he will leapfrog Howard Johnson into second sometime around the mid-way point of the 2011 season.
It seems ironic that Wright—who worked extensively on his hitting over the winter with HoJo—will soon pass his mentor in one unflattering category.
Wright is contracted through to the end of the 2012 season, with a club option for 2013.
There is no doubt in my mind that by the end of 2012, Wright will own the franchise record alone, closing in on 1,000 strikeouts if he hasn't already surpassed it.
Putting it into perspective, only six players in the history of the game have struck out 1,000 times in their first eight seasons, and only 19 have ever hit the milestone before their 30th birthday.
After a disappointing and powerless 2009, the third baseman seems to have found his power stroke in early 2010. He has already hit seven home runs this season when he only managed 10 in 144 games last year.
His production is slightly up, despite his batting average hovering around 40 points below his career average.
So that is a positive, if not bittersweet sign, but I think it's unrealistic to expect his value to mirror that of his 2008 season if he continues to chase bad pitches.
Evidence suggests everything will return to somewhat normal levels over the course of the season. That is the way with baseball statistics and their cyclical nature.
He is striking out at a faster rate than ever before at the same time as walking more than ever before and hitting more home runs than ever before.
In the same way that he won't finish the year with 18 percent of his fly balls going for home runs, he's not going to strikeout out once in every three at-bats.
The problem is, he is swinging at fewer pitches and still taking bad swings at the ones he is choosing to offer at.
That is a recipe for disaster.
If you're not swinging at that many pitches, it stands to reason that you are either seeing a lot of balls or being very selective. It follows then, that you are either constantly ahead of the pitcher in the count, or that you are waiting on your pitch in your part of the zone.
In either situation, you expect Wright to be getting good looks.
It explains why his home runs levels have returned to somewhat normal levels, and it goes some way to explaining why he's drawing walks.
But it doesn't explain why he's swinging through more pitches than ever before while struggling to put the ball in play at a record rate.
Wrights problems have not come from being caught with the bat on his shoulder, but rather from missing a pitch when he faces a two-strike count.
He is currently making contact on 85 percent of pitches he swings at in the zone, (a career low) while putting bat on ball just 52 percent of the time when he chases a pitch (another career low).
You can put it down to a slump if you like, but I think a better explanation is that he just hasn't adjusted to the new ways pitchers are approaching their at-bats with him.
With the exception of the high stuff, Wright is a decent fastball hitter, but he's seeing fewer fastballs now, instead being fed a diet of sliders and curveballs that he just can't handle.
It isn't so much that Wright has a new-found plate patience, it's just that pitchers are throwing considerably more pitches out of the zone to him. He either works a walk or swings through it.
I don't know the answer for Wright, other than to keep working on his pitch recognition and handling breaking pitches.
As long as he continues to struggle, expect teams to keep exploiting the weakness.
Brian Wilson did yesterday, and Wright ultimately got thrown out of the game because of it. He's frustrated with himself, and he's not the only one. Fans are starting to lose their patience too.
People tend to grin and bear it when the team's winning, but expect the chorus of boos to start up again when the club hits an extended rough patch.
With Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard recently being awarded a top-dollar contract, I wonder whether the Mets No. 5 thinks strikeouts equal paychecks.
If he does, he's got some awfully disappointing news coming his way.
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