PHILADELPHIA -- Tim Teufel spotted the flaw immediately, watching game film this offseason of David Wright's defense at third base. The former Gold Glove Award winner was a fraction of a second too late, a half a step too slow, too often caught flat-footed when the ball came his way.
"It jumped off the page," Teufel said.
So the Mets' third-base coach did something about it, corralling Wright this spring and telling him in no uncertain terms what needed to change. Most mornings, the two would meet on the infield dirt at Port St. Lucie, Fla., where Wright would work on putting his feet in the best possible position to explode in any direction. Wright would work also to keep those feet under him as he threw to first base, putting more of his lower body and less of his arm into throws.
The results have been staggering. By most measures a defensive liability over the past three seasons, Wright has corrected and reversed that trend through the first five weeks of 2012. He has committed just one error in 28 games, at a point in the season when some starting third basemen have five or six times that many. Wright's .986 fielding percentage ranks fourth in the league, while most advanced metrics -- Ultimate Zone Rating, Runs Saved and the like -- peg him as at least an average defensive third baseman.
There is some danger in putting too much stock in those early numbers, considering how unreliable defensive statistics can be in small samples. But given how poorly Wright's defense has been trending since he won his Rawlings Gold Glove Awards in 2007 and 2008, those numbers have to rank among the most encouraging aspects of the Mets' young season.
"I take a lot of pride in it," Wright said. "I don't want to be considered a hitter. I want to be considered a well-rounded baseball player, where I can play defense."
Although Braves third baseman Chipper Jones infamously criticized him after his first Gold Glove season, Wright was at the time a strong defensive third baseman -- perhaps not tops in the league, but at least somewhere in the conversation. The next year, even though his error total dropped, Wright displayed decreased range as his body bulked up -- two trends that may well have been interrelated.
Then suddenly, Wright's defense plummeted. He began making more errors in fewer chances, while proving routinely unable to reach the balls he used to. The nadir came last season, when Wright posted the third-worst UZR of any regular third baseman in baseball, according to Fangraphs.com, trailing only Chris Johnson of the Astros and Mark Reynolds of the Orioles.
It seemed as if that aspect of Wright's game was gone for good, even if he did not believe it.
"For me, fielding's kind of like hitting, where you go through some slumps and you have some times that you play well," Wright said. "I don't think that you're ever as bad as you are when you're struggling, and you're never as good as you are when you're playing well."
Fielding is also like hitting in that a player can work to improve. That is what Wright made a conscious effort to do this spring, with Teufel stressing for the Mets' resident workaholic not to take as many ground balls as possible at third base. Instead, Teufel preached taking far fewer grounders at higher intensity, concentrating as much as possible on every one of them. On days when Wright bemoaned the heat or the early hour, Teufel told him simply, "I'd rather you just not do it if you're feeling that way. But if you're going to do it, let's do it right."
In that fashion, Wright was able to correct the flaws that Teufel spotted on video, bursting out of his defensive stance a few fractions of a second sooner.
"I knew something wasn't right, because he's an athlete," Teufel said. "He's quick. He steals bases, so he has great lateral movement, so there had to be something that caused it. And that's what caused it. We found the solution."
Tuesday in Philadelphia, Wright dove to his left to snare Hunter Pence's ground ball in the seventh inning, robbing Pence of a single that would have given the Phillies two one-out baserunners in a one-run ballgame. Instead, they had a man at first with two outs. Two innings later, Wright ranged into foul territory to grab another Pence grounder, throwing across his body to nail the Phillies outfielder at first. Nobody took much notice, because Wright did it with such apparent ease.
In that sense, he has been the lynchpin of this improved Mets defense, which has also received elite contributions from Andres Torres and Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field. Not to mention that Wright has managed to improve while also posting some of the best early offensive numbers of his career.
"And it's not like we spent hours doing it," Teufel said of his defensive work. "It's just the visual thing on video, and then you take it to a guy like that and he takes it from there and goes, 'All right.'"
Teufel snapped his fingers.
"It corrects within a short period of time, because he's intelligent, a good athlete and easy to work with.
"He wants to be good at what he does, and it shows up every day."