Statistics show Mets hitters strive too much at Citi Field

Mets' Curtis Granderson walks to the dugout after

Mets' Curtis Granderson walks to the dugout after striking out with bases loaded to end the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in an MLB baseball game at Citi Field on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Consider the pall that hovers above Citi Field, which has been a house of horrors for any Met who happens to be holding a bat.

By now, the problem is well documented. Through Friday, the Mets had a .700 OPS on the road and a dreadful .598 OPS at home.

They can't hit at Citi Field, and some of the issues might be talent. There's a price to pay for slashing payroll by $60 million over the last three years.

But is it all a matter of talent? Or is the ballpark being used as an easy scapegoat? Is it possibly, as some people in the organization believe, a matter of players simply struggling to get Citi Field out of their heads?

"That's too general," said David Wright, who believes the team's home struggles can't be explained by only one factor. "What does that even mean, to get in our heads?"

 

Stats don't lie

Let's forget for a moment about actual results -- batting average, homers, runs -- which can be influenced by environment, circumstance and luck. Anybody who has watched a long drive die on the Citi Field warning track can attest to that. So can anybody who has hit a ball within five miles of Juan Lagares, or reached first base while holding the remains of a shattered bat.

Let's focus instead on process.

A team loaded with talent should be expected to hit the ball hard wherever it plays.

Sometimes a bad team catches good luck, and for a time it will look better than it really is. But over time, process rules the day. The underlying causes of success eventually will rise to the surface.

Hit the ball hard and get rewarded -- wherever you are.

Except it's not that simple for the Mets, who crush the ball on the road only to shrivel up at Citi Field.

The Mets have a team line-drive rate of only 19.1 percent, 25th in all of baseball, according to FanGraphs. Away from Flushing, that number jumps to 22.9 percent, the third-best rate in the game. Those publicly available numbers are backed up by the Mets' internal data.

According to team insiders, Mets hitters across the board have a higher exit speed off the bat on the road than they do at home.

Yes, a park's size can impact results, but it shouldn't have any effect on process. If the Mets were truly devoid of talent, they'd be just as inept on the road. Clearly, that's not the case.

So what accounts for the difference?

 

Is it in their heads?

For some team officials, the ugly truth is that Citi Field again has gotten in the heads of their hitters. They are trying too hard -- swinging harder, pressing -- to conquer the park's dimensions.

"It gets to be more of a mental thing than it actually is physical," hitting coach Dave Hudgens said. "Because the swings get longer, you try to do a little bit more. It's more about us than it is anything else."

Manager Terry Collins said the cumulative effect sends a destructive message.

"Hey, I've got to swing harder to do damage here," Collins said. "The harder you swing, the less control of the barrel of the bat that you have, therefore the swing-and-misses are up."

The Mets' strikeout rate at Citi Field is 25.6 percent, second highest at home in all of baseball. It's 20.2 percent on the road, or 14th. The Mets also hit more fly balls at Citi Field, 37.1 percent, than they do on the road, 33.2 percent.

"Obviously, with the guys, we try harder at home," Hudgens said. "But you get less results when you try so hard to maybe get that extra on the baseball."

Though Wright stops short of saying that hitting at Citi Field has gotten in the Mets' heads, he conceded that swinging harder to get hits is a matter of "human nature."

How else can the exact same group of hitters look so dangerous on one side of town (see the carnage at Yankee Stadium) and so hapless on the other (see any Mets home game during the last three seasons)?

Clearly, this is an issue for the Mets on multiple levels. Reaching Sandy Alderson's goal of 90 wins this season while shouldering this home-field disadvantage is nearly impossible.

There are other effects, too, such as complicating decisions that should be pretty straightforward on the surface.

 

Young at heart

Consider the case of outfielder Chris Young, who signed for one year and $7.25 million during the offseason and struggled to begin the season.

Despite a down year with the A's last season in which he saw his playing time curtailed, he still flashed power, and scouts vouched for his athleticism in the outfield. Both appealed to the Mets.

They faced competition to sign Young. That prompted them to throw in a promise that Young would get ample opportunities to play, according to sources.

Through Friday, Young was hitting .206 with a .283 on-base percentage and three home runs in 30 games. At some point soon -- early June typically is the time frame for these things -- the Mets no longer will feel the obligation to give him plenty of playing time. This will make it easier for Collins to run Lagares out there every day.

Benching Young should be a slam dunk. Except, as team insiders note, Young's success away from Citi Field (.256/.341/.436) hints at a reason to stick with him a bit longer.

Hudgens called Young a "prime example" of the Citi Field effect.

"He knows he probably can't go out this way," Hudgens said, motioning to rightfield. "But he can go out that way [to leftfield]. And his main problem is that he pulls his front side out too quick. That's generally his main problem."

Arguably, that same idea could be applied to the entire roster from Wright on down, with the effect of the ballpark hindering evaluations. Like it or not, environment is a factor, and the question becomes whether a player can work past it.

 

The mental mountain

So for all the talk about moving in fences, changing hitting philosophies, juggling starting lineups and altering pregame routines, could the key to conquering Citi Field simply be getting over the mental mountain that it has become?

Some in the organization think so.

Said Hudgens: "We've got to get that out of our heads, not worry about the ballpark, have the same approach."

But getting players to resist the urge to try harder in a place that beats them down on a nightly basis? It was a topic of discussion again Tuesday night during Hudgens' hitters meeting. But getting players to relax is easier said than done.

"There's times that we overswing here in this park," Collins said. "Now how do you change that? You tell me. When you come up with an answer, let me know."

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