5 reasons the Mets offense is succeeding without slugging
Team is tied for most runs scored despite 29th-best hard hit rate
The Mets are doing it, and then some.
When you have a winter like they did – hiring one of the biggest managerial names around, acquiring a living legend ace in Max Scherzer, trading for an above-average starter in Chris Bassitt, and adding a third of the lineup via free agency – you expect to see immediate results, and they have. Even without Jacob deGrom, the Mets are 10 games over .500. They’re in first place. They’re meeting – exceeding – expectations.
They’ve also got just about the most confounding offensive process in recent memory. The Mets are tied for the most runs scored in the Majors (128) but they’re also essentially tied for worst in the Majors in hard-hit rate (34%). That’s a difficult, near-impossible, trick to pull off. There's a reason hard-hit balls this year in the Majors have a .466 average, and all other balls are down at .214.
Yet … they are pulling it off. In a game obsessed with hitting the ball as hard as you can as often as you can, New York hitters don’t. They have the second-highest rate of weak contact. It’s worked. How?
1) They’re making lots of contact
If you’re not going to make loud contact, you’d better make lots of contact, right? Indeed they do. The Mets have the fifth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball. No team has more batted balls, of any type. When they pulled off their miracle comeback on Thursday night, 11 Mets came to the plate in the ninth, and 10 of them made contact. Only one, Francisco Lindor, hit a home run. Starling Marte got it started with a leadoff single hit all of 45.2 mph. You can see how that's more appealing than a grip-it-and-rip-it group.
Maybe, then, they’re single-handedly bringing back Old School Baseball. Maybe in a 2022 baseball environment that doesn’t reward power in the air like it used to, there’s merit to this approach. There are more than a few fans who would love this to be true – and it might just be.
It could be that it is. But it can’t just be this, either. The two teams the Mets are tied with for most runs scored, the Angels and Brewers, have the sixth- and seventh-highest strikeout rate, respectively. Two of the teams with the three lowest strikeout rates, the Royals and White Sox, have scored the fewest and fourth-fewest runs. Meanwhile, the Yankees have baseball’s best hard-hit rate and the AL’s most runs per game.
Just look at the 30 teams, entering play Friday. There’s maybe a mild relationship between not striking out and scoring runs, but it’s not strong, and it’s very messy.
There’s more than one way to score, of course. Maybe this is the Mets’ way, and the Thursday comeback showed the value in just getting the ball in play. It’s just difficult to see them with a similar strikeout rate and worse hard-hit rate than the Royals, baseball’s weakest offense, and think it’s entirely this. So: what else is it?
2) They built a roster for the park they play in
This one is easy, because the club is more or less on the record as having said so.
“You actually can build a team around your park,” assistant GM Ben Zauzmer told the Athletic last year. “Where it can help a team is if you come up with discoveries that it actually plays differently for different types of players, then you can start to figure out: Well, who are guys that could really thrive on the New York Mets?”
What he was referring to was the fact that Citi Field, for years, has been one of baseball’s most difficult parks to slug in.
We wrote about this some last summer, noting that between 2015-21, the Mets had baseball’s third-best road slugging percentage, but the fifth-worst home slugging. The Statcast park factor page for Citi is nearly all blue (i.e., cold, or poor), except for strikeout factor, which the park has increased.
Even Pete Alonso, one of the few Mets hitters with what you might consider top-end hard-hitting skills, felt it. Last year, he slugged .414 with 12 homers at home … and .618 with 25 homers outside of Queens.
If even Big Pete, Home Run Derby hero, couldn’t conquer Citi, then you’d need another strategy, one that relied a little more on solid contact and less on power. It’s with that in mind that we share this:
Of the 7 Mets (min. 100 plate appearances) who struck out 23% of the time or more last year, 4 are gone.
That’s Billy McKinney, Javier Báez, Jonathan Villar and Kevin Pillar. In their place are Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Mark Canha, who have combined to strike out only 20% of the time.
Two of the returnees, James McCann and Tomás Nido, are the team’s catchers and not in town for offense anyway. (And, while McCann has struggled this year, he’s shown a strong increase in making contact.) It might just be, this roster makes more sense for their home than it used to.
3) The sport then changed in exactly the way that would benefit them
Have you heard that offense is down? Surely, you have; the Majors just posted a .369 April slugging percentage, tied for the third-weakest of the last 40 years. A change in the baseball before the 2021 season, combined with 20 additional parks turning on humidors this year, combined with increasingly endless streams of relievers, plus the usual vagaries of early season weather, well, it’s just not a great time to be a slugger, especially not when balls you’re used to reaching the bleachers are instead falling on warning tracks.
It might be a great time to be a hitter – or team – who doesn’t absolutely depend on home runs, though.
Consider their slugging percentage, which hasn’t changed much … and where that ranks, which absolutely has.
2021: .391, 25th best
2022: .386, 12th best
They haven’t slugged much better or worse than last year, but “holding steady” is considerably better than what most of the league has done, isn’t it? Considering that Citi Field was already difficult to play in – and had a humidor installed in 2020, not new to this year – maybe, last August, when we did a deep dive into what was ailing the Mets offense, the answer should have just been “this is a sneak preview of 2022 across the Majors.”
Everyone, that is, has been affected. But perhaps the Mets are feeling the effects less than most, because they were already there.
4) The balls are falling for hits … at least right now
We’re hesitant to just give up and say “it’s luck,” because it’s usually never that simple. We’re obliged, however, to point out some facts. The Mets have a .309 Batting Average on Balls In Play (or BABIP), which not only leads the Majors, but is tied for the highest in full-season team history.
This part has nothing to do with strikeouts or home runs. It’s just about whether balls hit into the field of play are being hits or outs, and it’s important to note that Canha has a .431 BABIP; he had a .286 career BABIP before the season. Jeff McNeil’s .390 is considerably higher than his career .324. Those numbers are unlikely to last all season.
They have the best average on ground balls, and they hit a ton of them (third-most), but they hit them extremely weakly (fifth-weakest ground ball exit velocity). Sometimes, that's not so bad; that can be seen, to some extent, in the league-leading number of infield hits the Mets have: 33. That goes back to the concept of putting the ball in play, but infield hits are an unusual thing to build a great offense around for more than a few weeks at a time.
5) Maybe it’s changes in approach
“I’m just trying to hit it where they’re not,” McNeil said earlier this week. “That’s really all it is. If they were shifting me last year, I just wanted to hit something hard … just hit something hard, don’t try to beat the shift, just put a good swing on it. Now, if they’re shifting me, I don’t care if I hit it 40 mph, as long as it goes to the left side and gets through.”
This is a compelling case, it’s just difficult to find a great deal of evidence to support it. McNeil isn’t pulling against the shift less; he’s doing it more than ever, on a team that’s middle of the pack here. (His success may be about a career-high line drive rate.)
We thought, too, there would be more evidence of situational changes than there are. The Mets have the fourth-lowest strikeout rate with runners in scoring position, but given that two of the teams ahead are the porous offenses of the Reds and Red Sox, that doesn’t seem like much to point to. With two outs, their strikeout rate is seventh-best, though again behind some pretty poor offenses. It’s also seventh-lowest in “high leverage” spots, though again, the company kept here is not strong.
We wonder, too, if there’s something to be said about opposing outfields being slow to reposition. Break up the distance of Mets batted balls, and see where the team ranks.
0-120 feet: 2nd-most
121-220 feet: most
221-320 feet: 3rd-most
321-plus feet: 18th-most
Only two parks have a shorter average distance on non-homer fly balls and line drives than Citi does. But there's no trend, yet, that opposing outfielders are moving in.
It helps, too, that Brandon Nimmo and Lindor are each healthy and productive, two statements that weren't always true in 2021. The Mets are for real because their pitching is for real, especially if they get the boost of a deGrom return. They're for real because they're deep; they're one of a number of teams who have seven different hitters with a league-average mark or better.
They're just doing it in a way that doesn't make the most obvious sense. There's obvious value in not striking out, but since the quality of that contact is relatively weak (25th, based on Statcast metrics, which account for angle as well as velocity), they're heavily reliant on those batted balls not finding gloves. It's worked so far. It may yet work. It'll just work in a way we've rarely ever seen, if it does.