By Jason Wojciechowski on July 26, 2009 at 7:07 AM
Faith and Fear in Flushing says, after exactly five years, it's David Wright. My buddy Migs says it's Mike Piazza. I have a hunch it might be Darryl Strawberry. Let's figure this out.
Wright's average season over that five-year period: a .310/.391/.523 line, 27 homers, 42 doubles, 23 steals in 29 attempts. On Baseball Prospectus's "adjusted for all-time" Davenport Translations, this adds up to about 49 runs above average on offense. Defense is a little rougher, and UZR doesn't go back to Strawberry and Piazza, so we'll use BP's Fielding Runs and call him -5 per year there, for a total of 44 runs above average overall.
Piazza's best five years with the Mets were from 1998 to 2003. He was traded to New York in 1998 and played 109 games, and injuries limited him to just 68 games in 2003, so that adds up to close enough (so I don't have to go through the game logs to figure out Piazza's stats). His average stats over that period: a .307/.382/.573 batting line with 36 homers, 30 doubles, and one steal in two attempts. This adds up to 39 batting runs above average. He was a legendarily bad fielder, to the tune of 19 runs below average yearly, bringing his total down to just 20 runs above average. Half of that 20-run gap between Piazza and Wright is eliminated by the standard positional adjustments, but you're still left with Wright ahead of Piazza by about a win.
But what about my dark horse, Darryl Strawberry? The Straw's best five years were from 1986-1990, when he averaged a .264/.361/.526 line, resulting in an OPS nearly the equal of Wright's, but in a vastly more difficult time to hit. Straw averaged 34 homers and 26 doubles per year, along with 23 steals in 33 attempts (so he was actually a negative stealing bases -- even in a low-run environment, as Shea in the '80s was, stealing at a less-than-70% clip isn't getting it done). Still, he was 46 runs above average on offense per year, right there with Wright. Strawberry, though, unlike Wright and Piazza, was a positive with the glove, although a modest one, about five runs above average per year. This puts Straw at 51 runs above average per year, compared to Wright's 44. That seven-run gap, though, is erased by the positional consideration (same link as above), which is again about ten runs, leaving Wright with a slim lead.
So on the objective merits, Wright actually does hold a slim lead. Objective merits aren't the only ones that count, though. Mets fans remember Piazza's clutch exploits fondly, and Darryl of course won a World Series in 1986, the last time they won it all. Further, when you're talking about the slim edge that we are (three runs), the fact that our current defensive statistics are really just approximations of value comes into play. For outfielders in particular, I'm not sure we're quantifying things like "doubles misplayed into triples", "triples cut into singles", the deterrent effect of a strong arm (or the encouragement effect of a weak arm), and so forth. It's certainly possible that we're missing five runs of value in either direction on Strawberry's defense. (Infield defense, by contrast, seems much more refined. The only equivalent I can think of is the "knock the ball down to keep it in the infield so the guy on second can't score" play, which seems to be relevant far less often than the question of how quickly an outfielder can get to a drive into the gap.)
Finally, of course, David Wright's best seasons may be yet to come. He is still just 26, which means he's just now entering his peak, so he could well have three to five years starting right now that pushes him clearly past Strawberry. (That said, his numbers show a big step forward from 21 to 22, another one from 23 to 24 and then a step back so far this year, that entire step back residing in his home-run total. It may be that he is what he is already. Given that what he is already is the second-best third baseman in baseball, though, that's nothing to complain about.)