DENVER — David Wright can no longer swing his way out of slumps. He can’t lock himself in the batting cage and hit until his mechanics feel just right. His balky back won’t allow it.
Spinal stenosis has forced the Mets captain to treat his repetitions like rations, precious resources to be used when necessary.
So when he arrived at Coors Field for early batting practice, hours before first pitch, it was notable.
For one night, the work did some good.
Wright went 2-for-5 in Saturday night’s 7-4 loss to the Rockies. He is hitting .231 with four homers and eight RBIs, though the first nine games of the Mets’ western trip exemplified the third baseman’s struggles. He was just 2-for-21 (.091), part of what has been a teamwide slump. He is striking out at an alarming rate — with two more Saturday night — far more than any point in his career.
For Wright, the time had come to stem the tide.
“Every once in awhile, I don’t think it’s a huge problem,” Wright said of doing extra work.
More than ever, Wright’s contributions at the plate must outweigh what he’s costing the Mets in the field. His back condition has left his throwing arm noticeably weaker and has deprived him of lateral range.
Perhaps, Wright learns to work around his physical limitations, and the level of his play at third base eventually rises. But for now, his defense has generally been a liability. He must produce at the plate.
Manager Terry Collins has yet to give much thought to moving Wright out of the No. 2 slot in the lineup.
Despite the strikeouts, Collins notes that Wright leads the team in on-base percentage (.376), well above average when compared with the rest of the league’s No. 2 hitters. It’s also just May, too early to tinker with a lineup that has been potent.
But Collins acknowledged that his hand might be forced if Wright doesn’t cut back on his strikeouts.
“At some point,” the manager said, “if he continues to struggle, we’ll address that.”
Wright, 33, tried to take matters into his own hands, working one on one with hitting coach Kevin Long before most of the Mets had even dressed.
“When you’re a little kid and you get into a slump, you just hit your way out of it,” Wright said. “That’s something that’s been an adjustment for me, having to rely more on film and just mentally trying to figure out what’s wrong with my swing rather than going out there and hitting until it feels right.”
However, there is no substitute for feel. Following Friday night’s hitless performance, Wright huddled with Long about ways to iron out his swing. It was nothing new. Wright has made more small adjustments than at any point in his career.
“At the end of the day, he just wants the consistency to be there and he wants to feel good at the plate,” Long said. “You’ve got to feel good up there, that’s why he’s tinkering.”
After reviewing video, Long suggested ditching Wright’s usual cage work in favor of an extended hitting session outdoors. The two worked alone for about 20 minutes, with Wright taking about 40 swings along with built-in breaks.
The adjustments were mostly minor, though all were designed to encourage the more efficient use of Wright’s lower half.
Long acknowledged that Wright’s back prevents him from doing certain things mechanically, making it even more important that his lower body stays involved in the swing.
The early results were positive. Long said Wright hit about 15 balls over the fence in batting practice, an unusual spike that was a product of more than just the altitude at Coors Field.
Throughout it all, Long kept his attention fixed on Wright’s back foot, looking to see that he pushed off. It’s the telltale sign of using his lower body.
Said Long: “I think it’s going to help him more from a physical standpoint turning the back side because it enables and frees up the lower back.”
Despite the encouraging results, Long called the session the first day in a long process, one that could determine whether Collins must enter the uncomfortable territory of moving a franchise player down in the lineup.
Though his defense has rightly drawn scrutiny, Wright’s plate discipline has kept him a solid contributor. But he acknowledged that he must cut down on his strikeouts. And at some point, he must raise his average.
“I’d rather hit my way on base than walk,” Wright said. “But if the walks are there, I’ve got to take them.”
Evidence exists that a turnaround could come soon. According to FanGraphs.com, Wright leads the Mets in both line drives and hard-hit balls, indicating that tough luck has also held down his average.
Until his fortunes turn, Wright can only do so much to force the issue. He must temper his workload and protect his back.
“We need to find a balance,” Collins said. “Because he’s not going to be able to get those reps. We’re just not going to sacrifice three weeks because he went out and took 25 or 50 [extra] swings every day.”