Granted, because of the offseason lockout that restricted access between coaches and players, a club with several new batters and a new coaching staff was going to have a difficult time implementing a fully fleshed-out hitting approach.
Still, this was not the plan for the Mets.
Eric Chavez did not expect his offense to be the third-best in baseball, with 5.03 runs per game entering Thursday’s play, by scratching their way on base. The Mets’ offense has been excellent and from a different era, one of the most prolific attacks that has excelled with just the 19th-most home runs in the game entering Thursday.
But when play began in April, they noticed the balls were not traveling as well as in past years, and would-be home runs became outs at the warning track. The Mets naturally began to change their approaches. They entered play Thursday with the fourth-best strikeout rate (19.7 percent) in baseball.
“We’ve had a lot of success early winning games a certain way without even really hitting the ball that great [and] putting the balls in the seats,” Chavez, the first-year Mets hitting coach, said before Thursday’s series finale against the Brewers at Citi Field. “I think once you get those kind of initial results — ‘Oh, we can win ballgames without the home run’ — it just trickles down.
“Guys have taken it upon themselves: Next man up, pass the baton.”
The baton routinely has been passed. The organic plan is working. The Mets had the best batting average (.263) in all of baseball. Perhaps as importantly, they had the best batting average (.288) with runners in scoring position.
They have scored and won with just one player (Pete Alonso) with double-digit home runs.
“We are happy just to get on first — a walk or a base hit, that’s our job,” said J.D. Davis, one of the many Mets whose strikeouts and power are down this season. “Compared to some people [around the league] who just like to just swing for the fences and try to hit a home run. And if they don’t hit a home run, it’s not a successful [at-bat].”
Halfway through June, the first-place Mets can stick with an approach that is both fun to watch and producing results. The question may become whether it works — or must be tweaked — in October.
Teams that hit a lot of home runs tend to win more games. Last year’s Braves, the World Series champs, crushed the third-most homers in MLB. 2020’s champion was the Dodgers, who led baseball in dingers.
A team that finished in the bottom half of the league in home runs has not reached the World Series since the 2016 Cleveland club.
Especially in postseason games in which defense is emphasized, pitchers are excellent and runs are hard to come by, the team that can score a run (or runs) without stringing hits together often has an advantage. In last year’s postseason, a team that out-homered its opponent went 25-2.
“Of course we want home runs. I want to be higher up on that list,” Chavez said. “But that’s not the goal, the goal is to score runs, get on base, swing at strikes, take the balls.”
The Mets have been one type of team thus far, though Chavez is not sure this is the type of team they will be all season. They are focusing on hitting the ball hard without “selling out for home runs,” the hitting coach said.
If the ball begins playing more like a golf ball in the later months, perhaps an adjustment would come.
“We’ve got guys who are just really good hitters,” Chavez said. “We could implement any philosophy, and these guys are going to provide good results.”
Davis pointed out that spacious Citi Field is built for hitters who reach base rather than reach back for power. Hitters such as Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar and Jeff McNeil have cut down on strikeouts, with a likely corresponding drop in overall power.
For now, the Mets say, that’s OK. The approach has brought them to the top of the division and winning in throwback fashion.
“We’re not chasing 105, 110 [mph] exit velocity, because that’s a max-effort type of mentality,” Chavez said. “We want to operate like we’re hitting more fairways in golf. Not the [Bryson] DeChambeau 400-yard drives. We want the 280[-yard] drives down the middle.”