Buck Showalter said he doesn’t believe in inspirational quotes – well, at least not the way they’re used on TV.
“I’ve never read some expression from General Patton that helped me be a better player,” he said Wednesday – crushing the hopes of anyone who thinks [the fictional] Ted Lasso turned a team around by plastering a “Believe” poster on a locker room wall.
But how about de-inspirational quotes? Like when Winston Churchill warned that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
It’s not a motivational phrase, per se, but given how this year has gone, the Mets should probably consider putting it on the giant scoreboard before every game. Leave it on Post-It notes all over Billy Eppler’s office. Fly a banner over Steve Cohen’s Connecticut mansion (wait, scratch that one — we have no idea if Cohen owns the airspace above his house, too).
There are a lot of people who have been paid a whole lot to diagnose how these Mets became the worst team money could buy. And though the reasons are multifaceted and further complicated by baseball’s fickle nature, there are a few obvious concerns that we can file under “peculiar.”
The Mets don’t swing.
Yup. You read that right.
“It’s an issue we need to identify,” Showalter said before their game against the Cubs. “I don’t know if conservative is the word – but [the philosophy is] to be selective. We’ve always been pretty good at it I think, but it’s something we’re going to need to identify [how to approach]…because we have not been as good at certain things as we were last year. Which one is real?”
That’s a job for the front office brain trust, but I can at least give you a few numbers to chew on: The Mets are 26th in baseball in swinging at pitches inside the zone, and 27th in swinging at pitches outside the zone. Going into Wednesday, they swung at just 44.9% of pitches, which is third-lowest in baseball. When they do swing, they make contact 78.3% of the time – fifth best.
All of this is a significant shift from their 101-win year, when they were 13th in swing percentage at 48% — a difference of 3.1 percentage points and 15 spots in the rankings.
Hitting coach Jeremy Barnes, who took over this season for now bench coach Eric Chavez, said part of this is by design. It’s not that they don’t want hitters to swing, it’s that they wanted a sort of aggressive selectiveness that would lead to 1. Walking more and 2. Hitting balls hard, preferably over 95 mph.
“We knew that after last year, we got a lot of, air quote, cheaper hits,” Barnes told Newsday. “We led the league last year in infield hits for a long period of time and the two areas that we could definitely improve upon were walks and hitting the ball 95 mph. Those two things typically lead to runs. We’ve done both of those things better this year, but we just haven’t had the runs. It’s been one of those weird years.”
Barnes said the team tweaks its approach based on a batter’s profile (no one’s clutching his pearls if Jeff McNeil’s exit velocity doesn’t match Pete Alonso’s). They also intend to adapt it more to their current lineup of hitters – a who’s who of ‘Hey, that guy’s on the roster?’ (My words, not his.)
But while pitch selection is great, there’s also the very real fact that certain hitters thrive outside of the strike zone – McNeil, a reigning batting champ now hitting .253, being the Platonic ideal of a dude who can choke up on a bat and create havoc with little 75-mph flares to left. There also has to be some concern about further complicating a skill that’s so vulnerable to overthinking and overcorrecting.
That said, it’s understandable why the Mets went the route they did: They were trying to limit the variables. No one can predict when a ball with a .125 expected batting average will drop in, but there’s real data to support the idea that walks lead to runs, and hard-hit balls have greater success.
But now it’s time to understand that it didn’t work that well, and consider whether the Mets’ lineup, and its dearth of true power hitters, will do better with a different approach. Are their walks up? Sure, but it’s marginal: They’re averaging 3.28 walks per game this year compared with 3.15 last year. Is their hard-hit percentage up? Yeah, but not by too much – 28.4% last year (26th) to 31.3% this year (23rd). Meanwhile, their batting average on balls put in play – a stat that’s partially informed by quality of contact — is down from .302 last year to .271 this year, which is second-worst in baseball.
It's not all bad "luck". It's bad baseball.
“You always look for reasons why,” Showalter said. “It’s very easy to identify a problem, but it’s hard to attack that problem.”
He also trotted out an adage that wasn’t from Ted Lasso or General Patton or even Winston Churchill. It was an oft-repeated Buck-ism.
“You can’t take until you hit,” he said. “You’ve got to hit before you can take.”
Forget “Believe” – print that one out and tape it to the Mets clubhouse walls next year.