Through hitting system, Mets aim to build winner
Players are evaluated, rewarded based upon adherence to club's metric
NEW YORK -- About a week before Mets camp drew to a close in Florida, staffers gathered the team's hitters into a meeting room and laid out the organization's offensive philosophy, the tenets of which have long been well-publicized. Players were instructed to be selectively aggressive, swing at good strikes and, for the most part, let everything else pass by untouched.
They were later shuffled into private meetings with vice president of player development Paul DePodesta, hitting coach Dave Hudgens, team psychologist Jonathan Fader and one of the front office's video analysts. There, Mets players received statistical breakdowns of their 2013 performances centered upon Bases Per Out, an internally developed metric that seeks to measure a player's overall offensive production.
Players with less than three years of service time were told that their BPOs would determine bonuses tacked onto future salary offers. Each base -- one for a walk or single, two for a double -- would earn them $200 more than what they would otherwise receive. Each out would slice off $100.
Such is the growing real-world manifestation of the Mets' rigid offensive philosophy. What began as gentle prodding from staff members in general manager Sandy Alderson's regime -- swing at strikes, not at balls -- has evolved into a system in which hitters are graded, judged, evaluated, acquired, traded, released and paid based upon their adherence to the system.
The goal is to create a machine-like approach in which selectivity and intelligence can be just as important as sheer offensive talent. This is how the Mets hope to mold a winner out of a team with a mid-tier payroll and, by most estimates, less overall ability than the giants of the league. A team whose offense, through 15 games, has been arguably its greatest weakness.
"I don't think it's any secret," Hudgens said. "I don't think it's rocket science. This is what all the top teams in the league do. We're just trying to be one of the top teams."
Hudgens did not invent this system, but as the Mets' hitting coach, he is its steward, its operations manager. Which, in turn, makes him one of the organization's most important employees.
Cutting a hulking figure in the clubhouse, Hudgens is remarkably mild-mannered. When he managed Venezuela's Caracas team this winter and fans began volleying insults at his Twitter account, Hudgens routinely responded with messages such as, "God bless you and your family."
Hudgens' offensive philosophy perfectly mirrors Alderson's, which is why he was hired in the first place.
"He's an exponent of that, but he's not the only voice," Alderson said. "He's a big part of it, but it's not built around Dave."
Hudgens is, in essence, a link between the front office and the coaching staff. Unlike pitching coach Dan Warthen, who is a holdover from Omar Minaya's regime, or third-base coach Tim Teufel, whose Mets ties run back decades, Hudgens has long been an ally of Alderson. The two worked together for years in Oakland, placing Hudgens on a short list of candidates once Alderson took over as GM.
That tight relationship gives Hudgens more leeway than a typical hitting coach as he attempts to resuscitate an offense that ranked 12th in runs scored as recently as 2011, but fell to 23rd last year. The Mets' team on-base percentage also fell from .335 to .306 over that span.
Still, Mets executives stress the importance of the process over results, which is why the organization considers it so critical for its players to understand not just what the Mets want, but why they want it, and how that will ultimately result in better success. To understand, for example, that walks are a byproduct of the system -- not its goal. That strikeouts are no worse than 400-foot flyouts, even if it means that through 15 games, the team is on pace to shatter Major League Baseball's team whiff record.
"We don't want guys thinking in the box," DePodesta said. "We want them to have a certain deep understanding of just what it is we're trying to accomplish."
When Alderson first became GM, he and his staff made their views on hitting known, but did not enforce them to any great extent. That changed quickly. By last summer, coaches at each Minor League level were actually keeping score of their players through a point system, which had no correlation with traditional statistics. A hitter who worked a favorable count, for example, earned one point. A hitter who swung at a pitch out of the zone, regardless of the result, lost one.
"That was the first time, in my opinion, where they were trying to prove a point of what they wanted," infielder Josh Satin said. "And then this year, it seems like they're even taking it up another level."
What is important is approach. In his spring meeting, Alderson -- who helped usher in the Moneyball era with the A's -- gathered his team together and defined the term Bases Per Out, showing them how the BPOs of players throughout the Majors tended to correlate into dollars and cents. The league's richest hitters, in general, are those with the highest BPOs.
"It gives you something to shoot for," said outfielder Andrew Brown.
The only problem is that to date, the club's offensive approach has not resulted in actual success. The Mets have scored dramatically fewer runs each year under Alderson, DePodesta and Hudgens, going from 718 in 2011 to 650 in '12, down to 619 last season.
That makes 2014 a critical juncture for the system, which has now been in place for three full seasons. Over the winter, the Mets targeted free-agent hitters whom they felt would fit into their system, ultimately signing outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young. All spring, they continued to work with the rest of their players -- an almost exclusively homegrown bunch -- on their approach.
Now, once again, they are putting all that to the test.
"It's getting better and better," Hudgens said. "You've got young guys you see coming up having a little more of an understanding of what we're trying to do. It takes time. It takes consistent work. It takes reminding. I've seen guys get better, but it takes time."