I probably wasn’t the only person frustrated last year watching Kirk Nieuwenhuis, or Lucas Duda, or Ike Davis appearing to take fat pitches down the middle of the plate only to see them swing at a breaking pitch in the dirt or a fastball at eye level.
On several notable occasions Keith Hernandez himself went off on hitters taking 2-1 fastballs “right down the pike” as he’d say. There was a perception among many fans that the organizational philosophy emphasizing plate discipline while honing in and attacking the zone, as implemented by Dave Hudgens at the major league level, had in practice resulted in a Mets lineup that was taking too many pitches. In truth there is something to be said for going against the grain if only to keep opposing pitchers honest. Watching the games you were left with the impression that the Mets were very very predictable at times and that they lacked aggressiveness, but was that perception accurate?
Fans also lamented the fact that had the Mets put in a performance in July commensurate with what they managed in any of their earlier months they would have stayed in the race almost to the end, but they went 8 and 18, effectively ending any chance at a postseason birth.
The Mets as a team were 20th in OBP last year but in March and April they were 9th. In May they dropped to 19th, and from August through September they dropped to 25th. The team started off pretty patient from March through May, then they played the Nats and Giants a bunch of times and suddenly it seemed like the word was out, “pour in strikes early in the counts against the Mets.”
But was it the approach or the players? Maybe it wasn’t so much that the approach was bad, maybe Met hitters simply weren’t good enough to pull it off? Maybe too many of them were “faking it,” artificially implementing plate discipline by simply taking a few pitches (which is actually not Hudgens’ approach at all), and maybe that’s why the league was able to adjust effectively where a more talented (or receptive) team might have done better?
Hudgens’ hitting approach, however, is less about taking pitches and more about being selective and swinging at pitches in the zone. So, by Hudgens’ own standards, how did the Mets do? Below is a month-by-month breakdown of some key offensive stats followed by several important metrics focusing on plate discipline.
|W / L||13 – 10||15 – 13||15 – 13||8 – 18||12 – 16||12 – 18|
(Data obtained from: Fangraphs.com)
Some initial observations are that OBP declined every month. BABIP and BB% also dropped every month with the exception of August. So the Mets got on base less, walked less, and saw fewer batted balls drop for hits as the year progressed, but for the first three months of the season they also struck out less each month and, most importantly, they were winning somehow. June also brought a marked improvement in swings inside the strike-zone (that oh-so-important trait as preached by Hudgens) and a strong uptick in slugging percentage — never a bad thing.
Contact rates inside the zone stayed pretty flat through June at around 89% (68% outside the zone), but the Mets seemed to be swinging at more and more pitches overall which was perhaps a worrisome development. Another ominous sign in June was that line drive percentage dipped to 17.8%, not only was that a season low but it was odd because the Mets slugged better in June than they did both in April and May. In July their contact rates were significantly lower at 85% inside the zone (65% outside the zone) and they lost games at a staggering clip. The data smacks of running into some good pitching (which they did), but it also clearly appears to imply that contrary to Met batters slumping because of the selective approach at the plate, they slumped because they went away from it.
In the end we are left to make sense of one truly aberrant month when the Mets didn’t walk much and couldn’t get on base, July. Met hitters were swinging a lot more at pitches both in and out of the strike-zone while making a lot less contact. The fact that line-drive percentage, BABIP, and SLG% all increased from previous levels didn’t seem to matter much as they scored 36 fewer runs in July than they did in June and the losses piled up.
There is one very clear result in all of this. The disaster that was July of 2012 probably was not caused by the Mets taking too many pitches, trying to be too selective, or being too tentative at the plate. As they walked less and swung more they also stopped winning, so I think the approach as promoted by Hudgens passes muster.
If there is a flaw in this philosophy it may be that the approach is somewhat vulnerable to higher echelon pitchers who throw strikes, but the Mets in July managed to counter by hitting a lot of line drives (24.3%), slugging at a much higher clip and cracking 28 home runs … They scored enough to win. It wasn’t until August and September when the Met offense saw a real decline in production … By that time it was too late and even then we didn’t lose at nearly the same clip as we did in July. Nope, the offense, as much as it seemed to lurch and sputter in the second half, wasn’t what sunk the 2012 N.Y. Mets. It was pitching. July saw a whopping 5.25 team ERA, a .276 team BAA, and 88 walks (all season highs), much of that (though not all by any means) attributable to a putrid relief corps.
The Mets didn’t score much in 2012 to be clear. They scored less as the year progressed and seemed ill-at-ease at times with their walk-a-lot / attack the zone approach, but while the Mets won in May and June by clogging the bases and scoring in bunches, they were never a team that would win consistently with offense. The Mets hit enough in July — it was the pitching that fell through.
With this in mind you’ve got to feel a little more placated if not encouraged as a Met fan with the particular adjustments that were made this off-season. Bourne was never going to be a major difference maker in the grand scheme of a 162 game season, but if the Mets can finally put together a halfway decent bullpen and if their starting pitching is at least a semblance of what it was most of last season, you never know. If the Mets can avoid a full-scale pitching melt-down (which is really what July was) with an offense that manages to get on base and pester you with runs here and there, if they can pitch, and if they can hold a lead, then there is no telling what might happen down the stretch.