Mets' hitting philosophy remains the same

David Wright of the Mets looks on in David Wright of the Mets looks on in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citi Field on Saturday, May 24, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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The edict comes down in spring training, one of the first pieces of business covered before another long journey through summer.

There is no room for deviation. So the Mets gather their hitters in the same conference room at the team's complex in Florida. They sit through a presentation designed to show the benefit of discipline at the plate, which is expressed by charts, graphs, and percentages -- props from a typical board room sales pitch.

Except, this is no proposal, which implies the choice to accept or reject. These are orders. And to wipe out any ambiguity, the architect of the plan ends the meeting with a ultimatum: follow the organization's strict approach to hitting or find another uniform to wear.

"It's not enough for it to be an idea, a concept," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. "It has to be executed, and the only people that can execute it are the players. It's important that they get a consistent message."

A former Marine Corps officer, Alderson has spent the last four seasons instituting his plan with militaristic zeal, only to watch the Mets' run production dwindle with each season since his arrival in late 2010.

Frustration with those results bubbled to the surface last week, when the Mets fired hitting coach Dave Hudgens, one of Alderson's most trusted allies. The two first crossed paths two decades ago in Oakland, where they became partners in refining a philosophy on hitting that later would be outlined in the book "Moneyball."

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Reunited once more in New York, they sought to re-create that model of success, one that has been emulated throughout baseball.

The Mets have drafted with an eye toward identifying and training hitters predisposed to discipline. They have instilled the mantra of selectivity at every level of the organization. They have assembled the mechanism required to hammer home the message.

Considering all that has been invested in turning the Mets into a run-scoring machine, it came as little surprise earlier this week when Alderson quickly headed off any talk of a philosophical shift, even as he begrudgingly dismissed Hudgens, one of his loyal lieutenants. Alderson's commitment to the system is unwavering. "Our hitting approach," he said, "will not change appreciably."

* * *

"People think of 'Moneyball.' They think that the philosophy here is to try to take as many pitches as possible. And that's not the case. The situation dictates. The type of hitter dictates. There's so many things that dictates what the plan is each and every day.''

-- Mets captain David Wright

 

The basic concept itself is nothing new. "I pick a good one and sock it," the immortal Babe Ruth said in 1928. "I get back to the dugout and they ask me what it was I hit and tell 'em I don't know except it looked good."

Still, plenty of misconceptions persist about the Mets' hitting approach, and the structure they've built to make sure it's implemented.

The confusion begins with the ultimate goal. It is not to take pitches. It is not to run up pitch counts. It is not even necessarily to draw more walks. While these are beneficial byproducts, the real goal is to hit the ball with authority.

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This can happen with the first pitch of an at-bat. Or the 10th. Proponents insist it doesn't matter, so long as hitters swing only at pitches they can crush. Within the system, taking a good pitch to hit and chasing a bad pitch out of the strike zone are equal sins.

Paul DePodesta, a longtime Alderson lieutenant, called the philosophy "focused aggression."

"Walks are going to happen if you're selective," said DePodesta, the Mets' vice president of scouting and player development. "But what we really want to happen is guys driving balls, hitting balls into gaps, hitting balls off of walls or over walls. Those are even better than walks, you know?"

In the last decade, the Yankees and Red Sox famously made the philosophy their own, creating offenses seemingly hard-wired to wear out pitchers. Stocked with talented hitters, trained in the art of patience, the two teams perfected the art of making each at-bat into a war of attrition.

Starting pitchers were reduced to mush, leaving lesser bullpen arms vulnerable. Run totals climbed. More discipline only led to more power.

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"Historically," DePodesta said, "good teams do it well."

* * *

"What they're supposed to do is get the ball they can do the most damage with and then hit it. If it's the first pitch, great. If it's the third pitch, great. But what we don't want to do is say, 'Well, first fastball strike I get, I'm hitting.' Because let me tell you something: All of the diagrams in the world will tell you there's only certain places in the strike zone that you're dangerous.''

-- Manager Terry Collins

 

Not everyone has the discipline of a Marine. Not everyone has the pitch recognition skills of David Wright. Not everyone can fully take advantage of the plan. Which is why nearly four years after his arrival, Alderson's vision remains unfulfilled, undermined by a variety of factors including talent and the team's woes at Citi Field.

The lineup no longer features perennial all-stars such as Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, as it did in 2011, Alderson's first full season at the helm. Payroll has been slashed by $60 million. The offense has dried up along with the dollars.

"It takes the players to do it," Hudgens said earlier this season. "Players win games. When you have good players, going in the same direction, getting those kinds of results, you're going to score a lot of runs. If you have holes in your lineup, where they can't execute it, then you're not going to do as well."

The Mets scored 718 runs in 2011, then dipped to 650 in 2012 before falling once more to 619 in 2013. This season, the Mets' .353 slugging percentage ranks last in the National League.

Those struggles underscore the challenges of executing the approach. Hitters are forced to strike a difficult balance. While they must be ready to swing at the first pitch, they must also be prepared to grind out a long at-bat if needed.

To make those decisions, it takes elite pitch recognition skills. It takes sound mechanics to unleash powerful swings quickly enough to do damage. It takes guts to overcome the nerves that come with hitting with two strikes. This degree of difficulty requires constant reinforcement.

"A lot of it is keeping it in guys' minds," DePodesta said. "And sort of acknowledging that it's hard to implement."

* * *

"I call it cloning the hitters. To me, you can't do that. You're built different than I am and the next guy. I know that's the philosophy. It works for some guys and other guys, they're a little more aggressive. It might take something else from them. It's like you're trying to change someone's personality. You can do it up to a point. Some hitters it may work for, some it may not. Some hitters need to be aggressive.''

-- Longtime National League scout

 

When the approach is executed poorly, the results are ugly. Hitters look helpless, passive, lost. For all of the positive side effects of working into deep counts, it also promotes one conspicuous byproduct: strikeouts.

On air, the team's own broadcasters don't hide their displeasure, particularly when batters watch perfectly hittable pitches sail untouched through the strike zone. That crime is enough to elicit sighs from former MVP Keith Hernandez, a reaction which fans at home have become conditioned to anticipate.

"Sometimes guys get into, 'Let me see the pitch before I swing' instead of thinking swing on every pitch and recognizing it's not my pitch," Hudgens said. "That's what young guys get into and it looks passive."

Too often, hitters miss the pitch they have waited to get. Or worse, even if they manage to recognize the pitch, mechanical imperfections make their swings too long to react. Sometimes, the culprit is anxiety.

Wright personifies the ideal.

"He is the best example of the balanced approach, of being selective at the plate but when you get your pitch, of going for it," Alderson said. "He's the paradigm."

But most of the others are caught in between. On one side of the spectrum is Lucas Duda, whose patience can morph into passivity. On the other side is Daniel Murphy, whose aggressiveness can be both a blessing and a curse.

Yet both are expected to adhere to the system.

* * *

"One of the things that's interesting is that from year to year, what correlates most directly, what is most predictable, are home run rates and walk rates. Batting average for balls in play is very hard to predict. So what can you control? You can't control the outcome of a ground ball to shortstop. But you can control your approach at the plate."

- Sandy Alderson

Alderson still was running the Oakland A's in the early 1990s when he commissioned a paper to investigate the underlying reasons behind winning. He set about the task scientifically, influenced years earlier by the work of sabermetric pioneer Bill James.

The conclusion: don't make outs.

How that was accomplished -- hits, walks, reaching on errors -- mattered far less than grasping the major point. A team gets only three outs per inning. Each had to be protected.

Over time, statistics revealed even more about the game, such as the role of chance and luck. For example, while players' on-base percentages tended to remain relatively stable from year to year, batting averages fluctuated. From this, came another revelation.

Once the ball leaves the bat, it's a matter of fate whether it falls for a hit or lands in a fielder's glove. A hot smash to shortstop might get snagged by a Gold Glover, when a lesser fielder might not even reach it.

Either way, it's yet another factor out of a hitter's control.

Alderson responded by honing in on what a hitter actually could control: approach. And a refined approach would lead to more hard-hit balls, which fall for more hits.

Even if hitters were forced to wait for pitches to drive, deeper counts meant more walks and higher on-base percentages, skills that appeared more subject to control. A lineup filled with disciplined hitters would wear down even the best pitchers. DePodesta compared it to "eliciting Pyrrhic victories."

Outs happen. But by making a pitcher work for them, even a vanquished hitter can claim a sliver of victory.

Even a small improvement could lead to big benefits for an entire lineup -- regardless of whether a hitter profiles more like the patient Duda or the aggressive Murphy.

"Not every player is going to end up being a cookie-cutter version of one another," DePodesta said. "Guys really do have different abilities and different limitations. So they're going to be able to implement it differently."

* * *

"For every one Vladimir Guerrrero that becomes a superstar like he did, there's two thousand other minor-league guys who never got past Double-A because they had no strike zone command as a hitter.''

- Mets director of player development Dick Scott

 

Fundamentally, the Mets are no different from many other teams when it comes to their philosophy of controlled aggression. But few teams are as unrelenting in its implementation.

Four years ago, Alderson began assembling the infrastructure needed to teach the Mets' standardized approach. He brought in DePodesta, Hudgens and Scott, another key lieutenant with Oakland ties who serves as the Mets' director of player of development.

At no point during Alderson's tenure has the organization's hitting approach been more prevalent.

The efforts begin in the amateur draft, when DePodesta and his scouts target prospects who might be predisposed to executing the approach once they reach the big leagues. Top Mets picks Brandon Nimmo and Kevin Plawecki emerged from that line of thinking.

Both are thriving in the minors this season.

Once players join the organization, they are brought along slowly at first. The Mets are conscious of overloading them with information. But by instructional league in the fall, the process begins in earnest.

Hitters are instructed not to swing until they see a strike. The hope is that by getting acclimated early on to battling when behind in the count -- a constant reality in a patient approach -- they won't be intimidated by similar situations in the major leagues.

"If you're comfortable with two strikes, then you're not afraid of getting there, of taking two really good hacks and having to hit with two strikes," Nimmo said. "So they make you really comfortable with that. And then, obviously, they reinforce it."

Nimmo admitted the approach "takes a little bit of time to buy into." Of course, the Mets make it clear that prospects will be evaluated on their progress with the plan.

Scott makes the rounds through the team's minor-league affiliates, ensuring that the message sinks in, with no room for confusion.

"We believe in it," Scott said. "It works. The good teams in the major leagues have a combination of really good hitters and very selective hitters. It's a lethal combination."

* * *

"If you're doing the program well, they'll come and let you know that they're doing what they want you to do. If you're not, they let you know what you need to work on. They're keeping track of every little thing you're doing.''

-- Brandon Nimmo

 

The Mets value process. Their language reveals as much. They speak of pyrrhic victories and plate discipline, of walk rates and batting average for balls in play. Meanwhle, their fans use the language of results: home runs, RBIs, wins and losses.

There have been so many defeats in recent years that Alderson's regime has increasingly become a target for criticism. The team's hitting philosophy doubles as a convenient proxy, mocked for what has been a glaring lack of results.

But the system won't change, not as long as Alderson is general manager.

Each year, the Mets make small adjustments to the teaching of the system, hoping for new ways to entice their players to buy in.

After the annual hitters' meeting in spring, the Mets opened some eyes in the clubhouse. They used data to chart for players how much more they could make by simply doing more to reach base.

The Mets have even used plate discipline statistics to formulate salary bonuses for players who have yet to reach arbitration. Hudgens played a major role in running the hitters' meeting. This spring, he focused on hitting early in the count. Three months later, he is gone.

Yet the machine rolls on.

After 10 years as the Mets' minor-league hitting coordinator, Lamar Johnson took over last week as the hitting coach. Until Alderson joined the organization, the two had never worked together. Nevertheless Johnson sounded no different from one of the general manager's trusted lieutenants.

He noted that thanks to the hitting philosophy, run scoring has risen in the team's minor-league affiliates, as have on-base percentages. He expressed his hope that those results might eventually make their way to the big leagues. He demonstrated fluency in the language of process.

"I've always taught pitch selection but I just want my guys to be aggressive on every pitch," Johnson said on his first day on the job. "We just want guys to be aggressive when they get their pitch to hit."

The messenger has changed. But the message remains the same.

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