PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - The Mets had vowed to spend their season on the run.
So they kept a tab, awarding a point every time a player took an extra base, advanced on a pitch in the dirt or forced a bad throw from a napping outfielder. And the game within the game pushed them closer to the goal.
It didn't matter that aside from National League stolen-base leader Eric Young Jr., the Mets did not feature any blazing speed. By the end of last season, no team in baseball had done a better job of seizing the advantage 90 feet at a time.
"It's all about attitude," said first-base coach Tom Goodwin, whom manager Terry Collins put in charge of implementing an aggressive approach on the bases. "It's about a little bit of a fearlessness you've got to have, knowing that it's not the end of the world if you get thrown out trying to do something."
That attitude paid off handsomely. Last season, when their bats languished, the Mets absorbed some of the struggles by pushing the envelope on the bases. Aggressiveness on the bases again will figure prominently in the 2014 team's plans.
"Maintaining it would be nice," Goodwin said. "But we always want to get better."
"Attitude of aggressiveness''
The Mets began each of the last few seasons looking to improve their fortunes on the bases. But 2013 emerged as a banner year, with advanced metrics showing how much they benefited from seizing opportunities.
According to FanGraphs, the Mets' baserunning was worth a big league-best 21.4 runs above average, or roughly two wins in the standings. Baseball Prospectus, which publishes its own version of baserunning value, also ranked the Mets No. 1 by a wide margin.
The Mets successfully stole bases at a 77-percent clip, the third-best rate in the league. The catalyst was Young, who had 38 of his NL-best 46 steals after the Rockies traded him to the Mets. But steals represent only part of the equation.
The Mets proved adept at taking the extra base, according to Baseball Reference, advancing in a league-high 46 percent of their opportunities. That total included taking more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double.
The Mets also knew when to go for it. Even with the their aggressive approach on the bases, they had a league-low 11 runners thrown out at home plate under the watch of third-base coach Tim Teufel.
Judgment calls, he said, were easier to make because he could depend on the players adopting an "attitude of aggressiveness."
"If I know they're running strong and running well, it helps me make a better decision," Teufel said. "If they're doing it three-quarters because they think they're going to stop, that's when things get a little cloudy out there."
"Better position to win"
Young's speed made him the Mets' top baserunner last year, with FanGraphs estimating that he added an extra 9.4 runs above the league average. But Daniel Murphy (6.4) and David Wright (4.4) weren't far behind -- proof that blazing speed is not necessarily a prerequisite for effective baserunning.
"It's not just something where if you're fast, you're automatically a good baserunner," said Wright, who called the skill a reflection of smarts and effort. "There's a lot of guys of average speed, below-average speed, who can be good baserunners, who go first to third on a single, little things like that, that puts your team in much better position to win."
Motivation came in the form of a punchless offense that ranked in the bottom third of the league in runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging. Baserunning prowess alone could hardly mask their struggles, but it certainly didn't hurt.
"We're not built to go out there and really hit a bunch of homers and score 10 runs a night," Wright said. "We have to be a good situational team, we have to be an excellent baserunning team."
"That extra base"
This year, the Tigers, Nationals, Reds, Marlins and Rays have all been public about their plans to improve their fortunes on the bases. Perhaps they can take a page from the Mets, who consider their success mostly a matter of attitude.
Goodwin said he's not aware of the advanced metrics that show the Mets' baserunning prowess. But he senses that among the players, running the bases is taken seriously. Last season, he recalled that the dugout was filled with chatter about awarding points for heads-up play on the basepaths.
"Whenever we can get conversation about baserunning on the bench, now I know guys are into the game," said Goodwin, an excellent baserunner during his playing days. "They're looking to take that extra base."
Goodwin praised the Mets for their attention to detail -- improving secondary leads, looking for pitches in the dirt, knowing which situations warranted more aggressiveness. He noticed that runners had done as they were trained. For instance, with two strikes and two outs, they often took off when they spotted the first movement of the bat. It was yet another way in which the Mets were always on the run.
"Baserunning seems like a small thing," Wright said. "But to us, it's winning or losing, because again, we can't wait for three-run home runs to win games. We have to put pressure on the defense, and that is all about baserunning."