Bay looks to rediscover swing, return to All-Star form in 2012
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Swinging a baseball bat is not like riding a bike.
Though both are traditional rights of passage for elementary school boys and girls, the muscle memory of the former activity can be fleeting, while the staying power of the latter is famously unforgettable.
The difficulty in reverting to an old, even successful, swing was a realization that Mets left fielder Jason Bay experienced last September. With his club out of the playoff picture and his own performance -- .234 average and nine homers in 103 games through the end of August -- having fallen far short of expectations for the second straight season, Bay retreated to the video room with hitting coach Dave Hudgens.
Hudgens showed Bay side-by-side video. On one screen were clips from his success with the Red Sox in 2008 and '09.
"I kind of feel like that's what I'm doing," Bay recalled saying.
"No, no, this is what you're doing," Hudgens replied, gesturing toward the second screen with footage of Bay's struggles in New York.
"I thought I was doing it [right]," Bay said on Wednesday at Mets camp, "but it wasn't even close.
"Somewhere along the way I tried a million different things and got away from that. I couldn't slip right back into it, so we basically devoted September -- result-wise, [whether it was] good, bad or indifferent -- to stick with it for a month and get me back to what I was doing. I had some results with it.
"But I had tried so many things that I was almost learning the old swing again."
In his first six seasons in the majors, Bay was named the 2004 NL Rookie of the Year and made three All-Star teams during his time in Pittsburgh and Boston. He was an elite hitter. He batted .280 with a .375 on-base percentage, a .519 slugging percentage and per-season averages of 30 home runs and 99 RBIs. His .894 OPS during that time ranked 23rd among all major leaguers and his 181 homers ranked 15th -- perennial All-Star numbers.
The Mets signed him to a four-year, $66 million free-agent contract following his monster year with the Red Sox in 2009, when he had career highs in home runs (36) and RBIs (119). But in New York he started slowly, batting .259 with six homers in 95 games before a concussion ended his 2010 season prematurely.
In 2011 he began the year on the disabled list with a strained rib muscle and had trouble getting on track.
"We said we weren't going to tinker all year," Bay said, "and then we ended up tinkering all year.
"You're out there, you're struggling and you don't want to keep beating your head against the wall, so you're trying to find new things that are going to help you out. The next thing you know, it's July, and you don't really know what you're working on."
Upon seeing the discrepancy in his then-and-now swings last September, Bay went about regaining his old swing in an effort to, as Hudgens put it, "get his whip back" -- baseball jargon for the restoration of Bay's hands-based timing mechanism and power generator.
"I'm a handsy hitter," Bay explained. "Some guys use their legs. Some guys are big and strong. I generate my power when I hit with my hands. Somewhere along the way, it just wasn't there. I didn't have that snap. It was like swinging under water."
Bay noted that this was by no means a full overhaul -- a "fairly subtle" change, even -- but that small alteration to the start of his swing produced a dramatic change in results.
On Sept. 3, Bay hit his first home run in 26 days, began a 10-game hitting streak (with hits in 14 of 16 games) and finished the season 20 for 57 (.351) with a .424 OBP, .623 slugging percentage and three home runs. For more than two weeks, with many games against playoff contenders, Bay was again hitting like an elite player.
"When I had some results early, it reinforced sticking with it," he said.
Having that success at the end of the year helped shape the complexion of Bay's offseason. With a good couple of weeks fresh in his mind, he had more confidence in his swing during the long, idle months of the winter, and the notion that he was on the right track.
He makes his offseason home in suburban Seattle, where he has a friend who owns a baseball academy. The friend gave Bay the code to enter the warehouse facility and use the place whenever he wanted. Bay and his wife have three young children, so the 33-year-old is often up early and would go hit in isolation, long before the academy's school-age customers came by.
"Before I worked out, I'd go and hit off the tee," he said. "Just me and the tee. Mindless entertainment, if you will."
The Mets' cash-strapped ways are well documented -- they didn't retain shortstop Jose Reyes and signed only one player, reliever Frank Francisco, for more than $3.5 million this offseason -- but, in a sense, could be adding two or three All-Stars given Bay's underperformance and injuries last year to third baseman David Wright and starter Johan Santana. Promising young first baseman Ike Davis also missed most of last season, but should be ready to go this year.
With so few external additions, the Mets need to rely on internal improvements to be competitive.
"[Manager Terry Collins] makes a very good point in saying that there's no one in here who had a career year last year or even anything all that close to it," Bay said. "And we have some pretty good players. In that context, we're almost getting back a bunch of guys.
"All this is spring training, perfect-world stuff, but in our case it's the reality."
That the Mets call the new and improved NL East their home -- the Phillies and Braves remain the same playoff contenders that they were a year ago, while the Nationals and Marlins made significant additions to their clubs -- will make life especially difficult this year, but the continuation of an offensive culture change last year should help them score more runs.
With general manager Sandy Alderson -- who ran the Moneyball A's in the 1990s, mentoring Billy Beane to succeed him -- in charge of the Mets, the club has emphasized a new, more disciplined approach at the plate and hired Hudgens, a longtime A's player development coach, to help Collins implement it at the major league level. As Wright described the approach, the Mets stressed that their hitters be "patiently aggressive."
In one year the Mets improved their team OBP from .314 in 2010 (14th in the NL) to .335 in 2011 (second in the NL). During that time, the club did not retain two free-swingers, Jeff Francoeur and Rod Barajas, but otherwise had no non-injury-related major personnel changes.
Having so many runners on base and playing largely station-to-station baseball is how the Mets outscored the Phillies (by five runs) despite hitting 45 fewer homers.
Now, even with Citi Field's fences moving in a few feet, the club isn't asking someone like Bay to suddenly become a league-leading power hitter.
"He doesn't have to have a 40-homer year," Hudgens said. "Just [have] good at-bats and drive guys in."
Bay is now halfway through his New York contract, and the expectations, at least outside the organization, have changed. But there remains time to salvage his Mets tenure.
"Everybody has successes and failures in their profession," he said. "Ours are just a lot more public. It's hard to go out there every day and try to say, 'I'm working on something.' No one wants to hear you're working.' I'll be the first to admit, I want results.
"I've struggled and I've definitely admitted that, but I also feel like you go through things like this and that's how you learn."
"I still feel like I have a lot of good baseball left."