On-Base Perception

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Mets' struggles at Citi Field continue -- is it in their heads?

Mets leftfielder Chris Young reacts after striking out

Mets leftfielder Chris Young reacts after striking out in the bottom of the second inning on Friday, April 25, 2014. (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan)

Consider the pall that hovers above Citi Field, which has been a house of horrors for any Met who happens to be holding a baseball bat. By now, the problem is well documented. The Mets have a .700 OPS on the road and a dreadful .598 OPS at home.

They can't hit here, and some of the issue may be talent. You get what you pay for, after all, and there's a price to pay for slashing payroll $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 possible, 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 Mets captain David Wright, who believes the team’s home struggles can’t be pinned to just one factor. “What does that even mean, to get in our heads?”

Yet, evidence suggests that there's some merit in the argument that indeed, the dreaded human element isn't just for umpires anymore.

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 deep drive die on the Citi Field warning track can attest. So too could anybody who has hit a ball within five miles of Juan Lagares, or reached first base holding only 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 they play, whether it's Yellowstone Park or the surface of the moon. The opposite holds true as well. Whether it's in a shower, or in Carnegie Hall, bad singers will sing badly. Venue should have no bearing on talent.

Sometimes a bad team catches good luck, and for a time they'll look better than they really are. But over time, process rules the day. The underlying causes of success will eventually 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 just 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. The Mets' own internal data backs up those publicly available numbers.

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.

Citi Field's expanse isn't solely to blame for gobbling up hits and homers. The Mets are doing it to themselves

So, what accounts for the difference?

For some team officials, the ugly truth is that Citi Field has once again gotten in the heads of their hitters. They are trying too hard -- swinging harder, pressing, you name it -- to conquer the park's dimensions. Whether or not they're willing to admit it, they are competitors who have given way to human nature, even though compromising the process has made it even harder to get results.

“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.”

The numbers seem to back that assertion as well. Mets manager Terry Collins said that the cumulative effect of watching long drives turn 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, while 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. To Collins and Hudgens, it’s another telltale sign, whether it’s a conscious decisions or not, that hitters are trying too hard.

“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 his teammates' 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 look so hapless on the other (see any Mets home game for the last three seasons)? 

Clearly, this is an issue for the Mets on multiple levels. Winning 90 games is hard enough. To some, the notion is even laughable. Reaching Sandy Alderson's goal while shouldering this home-field disadvantage is nearly impossible.

But there are other effects as well, such as complicating decisions that should be pretty straightforward on the surface.

Consider the case of Chris Young, the outfielder Alderson signed for $7.25 million this winter, only to struggle to begin the season.

At the time, the Mets couldn't have banked on a hot start for Lagares. They needed insurance and they got it in the form of Young.

Despite a down year with the A's, 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.

At a time when Marlon Byrd had fetched a two-year deal thanks to the allure of his righthanded pop, Young was willing to sign for one year. The Mets faced competition, according to sources, prompting them to throw in a promise that Young would get ample opportunity to play.

But at some point soon -- early June is typically the timeframe for these things -- the Mets will no longer feel the obligation to give him a shot at plenty of playing time. He'll have to earn those at-bats. Assuming that he continues along on this same path, his playing time will dip. This will make it easier for Collins to just run Lagares out there every day (which is what many in the organization ultimately envision).

Overall, Young is hitting just .212 with a .284 on-base percentage. 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. In one way, it's not much different than the complications that teams face when they must judge pitchers and hitters in the gravity-deprived Pacific Coast League.

Like it or not, environment is a factor, and the question becomes whether a player can work past it.

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

There are some in the organization that 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 on Tuesday night, during Hudgens’ hitters meeting. But getting players to relax is easier said than done.

“There’s times that we over swing here in this park,” Collins said. "Now how do you change that? You tell me. When you come up with answer, let me know.”

Tags: Mets , Citi Field

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