Woes at plate due to execution, not approach
Hitting coach Hudgens says Mets' process needs to stay the same
MIAMI -- Hip-hop music blared Wednesday morning at Marlins Park as a parade of Mets hitters marched in and out of an indoor batting cage. The Mets had mustered just 32 hits over their previous 60 innings, batting .165 over that six-game stretch. They were looking for ways to fix it.
Perhaps most frustrating was that they were still seeing plenty of pitches, preventing opposing starters from lasting deep into games. The Mets were following the philosophies of general manager Sandy Alderson and hitting coach Dave Hudgens, waiting patiently for pitches that they thought they could drive. But they were not executing, either swinging through offerings in their respective hot zones or watching them fly by harmlessly for strikes.
From a window built into his office wall, Terry Collins could catch glimpses of Hudgens working with his hitters. The manager maintained a vested interest in what was happening on the other side.
"The approach has been good," Collins said. "But when we get a ball to hit, we haven't done big damage with it. We've hit some balls hard. We've hit them at some people. But that's no excuse. We're a better offensive team than what we're showing."
For evidence, Collins needed only to point to the first three weeks of the season, when the Mets averaged more than six runs per game. They were hitting homers on a near-nightly basis, reaching base with regularity and generally chugging along as well as any club in the league.
Then it all ground to a sudden halt. The Mets averaged 2.4 runs over their next nine games before busting out for seven in Wednesday's series-salvaging win over the Marlins. That stretch included six games in which the Mets hit .098 with runners in scoring position, leading them to question just what they were doing wrong.
Hudgens' answer? Not much. The Mets' approach had not changed; their execution had. But in a results-oriented business, those lines sometimes blur.
"They become impatient," Hudgens said. "They want results. All hitters want results -- that's why they're here. I think you show what you're made out of when you stay with the process, when you don't panic, and that's what professional hitters do.
"They know they're going to have success. You don't panic. You stay with what you know. And eventually, you come out of it."
Hudgens' job is to make sure that when the results change, the process does not.
It is a process so often misunderstood, thanks to the pop-culture lens that has colored Alderson's "Moneyball" philosophies. The Mets do value on-base percentage at least as much as any other team, but not necessarily at all costs.
Hudgens drills into his batters the process of hunting for specific pitches in specific zones. If Ike Davis does his best work on fastballs down and in, for example, the Mets want him to take or spoil other pitches until he receives one he can drive. David Wright defined it as a pitcher-dictated practice, noting that "if guys are pumping in strike one, strike two, we'd better be aggressive."
The danger comes when a hitter either becomes too passive in those situations -- see: Lucas Duda for a spell last week -- or, worse, does not execute on the balls in his zone. If Davis receives that same fastball down and in and swings through it, for example, or sends a ball scuttling to second base, he is more likely to assume his approach is not working.
That's human nature. Hudgens must combat it.
"It's just a matter of confidence, guys getting on a roll," Hudgens said. "Hitting's contagious. Guys start rolling a little bit, they get confidence. We stick with the same approach, we don't deviate from what we do, and eventually we come out of it."
Hudgens hopes that the seven runs and 13 hits the Mets amassed in Wednesday's win -- six of the runs and eight of the hits coming in the final four innings -- will wind up being the spark they need. It is entirely possible that the slumping Davis might soon catch fire, carrying the Mets as John Buck did over the season's first two weeks. Wright could go on the type of tear he did last April. Daniel Murphy may hit enough line drives to vault his batting average back up the league leaderboard.
Whatever happens, the Mets are convinced it will be a product of their process.
"I think we just have to be mentally tough enough to stay with our approach and not panic," Hudgens said. "I know what we can do if guys have a good approach at the plate."