Mets axe hitting coach Dave Hudgens, but team's problems go beyond that
After dropping their ninth game in their last 12, the Mets cleaned house on Monday. Not only did they jettison reliever Jose Valverde, who had blown a 3-1 lead by allowing four runs in their 5-3 loss to the Pirates, but they also fired Dave Hudgens, their hitting coach since 2011. The merits of the Valverde move were clear given the pitcher's performance, but the same can't be said for that of Hudgens. Like so many hitting coaches before him, he's a convenient scapegoat for the team's larger problems.
Hudgens took the fall for an offense that has scored just 2.67 runs per game over the span of that 12-game slide, never topping five runs, and that has conspicuously struggled to put runs on the board at Citi Field during his tenure. Since the start of the 2011 season, they're near the bottom of the majors in home scoring while ranking near the top in road scoring, producing the widest differential of the 30 teams. Here's the bottom five in the latter category:
|Tm||Home RPG||Home Rank||Road RPG||Road Rank||Dif||Rank|
During that span, the Mets have played to a .421 winning percentage at home compared to a .502 mark on the road. That 81-point discrepancy is the largest in the majors and one of only two that's even in the red; the Twins, at -.008 (.398 to .407, beware the rounding) are the other.
The Mets' underperformance at home has been even more pronounced thus far this season. They're 11-17 at Citi Field, scoring just 3.07 runs per game (dead last), compared to 11-11 on the road at 4.95 runs per game (fifth-best) for a whopping −1.88 runs per game differential (also dead last). Meanwhile, the team's run prevention at home (4.27 per game since 2011) has more closely resembled that on the road (4.48 per game), such that the discrepancy can't be chalked up entirely to the ballpark. Compare their offense and that of their opponents at home and on the road:
|Team||AVG/OBP/SLG||Home OPS+||AVG/OBP/SLG||Road OPS+|
Once you adjust for ballpark, the Mets' opponents have been similarly productive at home and on the road, but the Mets' utter awfulness at home sticks out like a sore thumb. Basically, they've been as productive as a team of Eric Youngs Jr. (career 77 OPS+) at Citi while being a hair above average everywhere else.
Looking more closely at the impact of Citi Field, Baseball-Reference.com single-year batting park factors since 2011 are 98, 95, 94 and 92. Note that when it comes to using park factors for ERA+ or OPS+ or WAR, multi-year factors are generally preferable because of sample-size issues. Still, what stands out during that four-season run is that scoring at Citi is actually down since the team moved the fences in between the 2011 and '12 seasons, by 11 or 12 feet in some spots; at the same time, they shortened the walls from 16 feet to eight. And while more homers have been hit at Citi Field since the fences were moved in (1.44 per game from 2009-11, 1.88 from 2011-14), it hasn't worked to the Mets' advantage: The team has been outhomered by 0.4 per game since the change.
So the Mets have failed to produce at home. Some of that may be chalked up to a lack of talent; neither Eric Young Jr. (.220/.315/.305) nor Chris Young (.202/.287/.349) merit everyday play, but the two are fourth and eighth on the team in terms of plate appearances despite vying for time in the same outfield. Youngsters Travis d'Arnaud (.196/.274/.314) and Ruben Tejada (.195/.311/.230) are below the Mendoza Line, and the latter has more or less lost his job to Wilmer Flores, who's just 9-for-39 without an extra-base hit thus far. Only four regulars have hit at league average or better (OPS+ of at least 100): Daniel Murphy (.309/.356/.422, 121 OPS+), Juan Lagares (.290/.336/.435, 118 OPS+), David Wright (.305/.348/.405, 115 OPS+) and Lucas Duda (.236/.310/.400, 101 OPS+) with Curtis Granderson (.212/.318/.376, 98) closing in thanks to a strong May (.938 OPS) on the heels of a dreadful April (.468 OPS). Lagares has been a particularly pleasant surprise given his offensive woes last year, but his 30/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests regression ahead. Duda, despite beating out the since-traded Ike Davis for the first base job, is still underperforming considerably relative to major league first basemen (121 OPS+), so it's really only three positions where the Mets are gaining an offensive advantage.
Hudgens isn't to blame for that, at least not primarily. General manager Sandy Alderson — who's been at the helm since October 2010 — is the one who assembled this team, but he's been hamstrung by pitiful payrolls in the wake of the Mets' ongoing financial crisis, leading to stopgap solutions at some positions; as the Phillies showed last year, going two Youngs is a poor substitute for a youth movement. Even with the pricey additions of Granderson (four years, $60 million) and Bartolo Colon (two years, $20 million), the team's $85.5 million payroll ranks 23rd in the majors according to Cot's Contracts, down 8.8 percent from last year despite playing in the majors' largest market.
Via Alderson's directive, Hudgens has preached a doctrine of plate discipline founded on hitters' rates of bases per out (BPO), a crude metric that is the organization's attempt to emphasize and reward selectivity. If that philosophy has helped, it's only up to a point; via FanGraphs, the team is swinging at 29.0 percent of pitches outside the zone and 44.7 percent of all pitches, both NL lows, while their 8.0 percent unintentional walk rate ranks second in the league and their 3.86 pitches per plate appearance third. The problem comes when they make contact; where they're eighth in the league in on-base percentage (.309), they're 12th in batting average (.237) and last in slugging percentage (.352), and it's fair to wonder if a more aggressive approach — or at least a less rigid one, tailored more to the individual hitters' skills — would bear greater fruit.
Hudgens was vocal about where the blame in the organization lay after after being notified of his dismissal. Via Newsday's Marc Carig:
Did Hudgens believe he got a fair shake?
"It depends on who you're talking about, from who," Hudgens told Newsday Monday night in a phone interview, just a few hours after his dismissal. "From Sandy, from the front office, from the players, from [manager] Terry [Collins], from the other coaches, yeah, absolutely."
He omitted team ownership. Hudgens and Alderson have ties dating to their time with the Athletics organization…. [He] defended the team's patient hitting approach, which has been bashed by broadcaster Keith Hernandez.
"The naysayers, the guys who disapprove of us, the guys who I listen to on TV all the time, those guys that know everything about the game, I'm just amazed at it," Hudgens said. "What's wrong with getting a good pitch to hit? Somebody, please punch a hole in that for me. I just shake my head at the old-school guys that have it all figured out. Go up there and swing the bat. Well, what do you want to swing at? It just confounds me. It's just hilarious, really."
Via MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, Hudgens felt the team's problems at home owed to putting too much pressure on themselves:
“I really just think guys tried to hard at home. I think the fans are really tough on the guys at home…
“You can see it in the statistics. The fly ball rates went up, the swing and miss rates went up at home. I think we were first in the league in runs scored on the road, so I think guys were relaxed on the road. They could just go out and play the game, don’t worry about anything. Then at home, they’re trying to do so much. ... When you look at the numbers inside the numbers, and you see exit velocity rates going down at home, you see fly ball rates going up, you see swing-and-miss rates going up, you see chase rates going up a little bit — although we’re best in the league in not chasing pitches out of the zone — I think those things, it just means guys trying to do too much, trying to hard.”
To replace Hudgens, the Mets have promoted minor league hitting instructor Lamar Johnson, a former major league first baseman (1974-82) who has worked in the organization as a roving hitting instructor and minor league hitting coordinator since 2005, giving him ties to many of the team's homegrown players such as Duda, Flores, Lagares, Murphy and Tejada.
It's possible that hearing a similar philosophy from a different voice will help Mets hitters find their groove, particularly at home, but as with all coaching changes, it's difficult to discern where the responsibility will lay for that. Johnson could well reap the benefit of the team's home/road splits converging as the team plays more to its true talent level. In the end, Hudgens' firing reeks of expediency and scapegoating, an effort to find a simple solution to a complex problem by presenting a scalp to the public. Short of firing owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz so that Alderson can spend at a market-appropriate level, the cycle will continue, with Collins next in line.