Baseball, if you haven’t heard, is in the middle of a fly-ball revolution. Seemingly all at once, hitters have realized that it’s easier to hit a home run with a fly ball than a ground ball. (It’s also much easier to hit a home run with a juiced ball). Never mind that Babe Ruth figured this out a century ago. Yonder Alonso already has 17 home runs for Oakland this season; his previous career high was nine. Justin Turner hit 27 home runs for the Dodgers last season. The Nationals’ Daniel Murphy accepted the fly ball into his heart and also hit 27 home runs last season, following up on his seven homers hit during the Mets 2015 postseason run. All the cool kids are doing it.
“There’s no slug on the ground,” say the Cubs.
“Your OPS is in the air,” says Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
“If I didn’t hit a ground ball all year, I’d be in good shape,” Jay Bruce told the New York Times earlier this season.
“Just say NO to ground balls,” says Josh Donaldson.
Fly balls are in. Ground balls are out. The Bastille has been stormed. Vive la angle de lancer.
And do you know what team hits the ball in the air more than any other team? (This will be a toughie for people who don’t read headlines.)
Since 2015, it’s your New York Mets.
Thing is, I’m not sure it’s the best idea.
I don’t think this is the best idea because, as I suspect the Mets are learning, what works for one player might not work for an entire team. Because despite hitting a lot of home runs, the Mets haven’t scored that many runs.
Since the start of the 2015 season, when they more-or-less stopped rebuilding, the Mets have hit the lowest percentage of ground balls in the National League by a wide margin. They have also hit the most home runs. That’s the fly-ball revolution summarized: Hit the ball in the air, hit more home runs.
(They’ve also walked at an average rate and they’ve struck out at an average rate, relative to the National League.)
But the Mets also have the lowest batting average on balls in play over that period. That is, when the Mets put the ball in play and it doesn’t go over the fence, it turns into an out more often than it does for any other team. That’s the downside of the fly-ball revolution. Balls in the air turn into extra base hits more often than balls on the ground, but fly balls also turn into outs more often. The Mets pop the ball up more than any other team.
Despite a normal strikeout rate, normal walk rate, and a lot of home runs, the Mets still struggle to hit for average. That low batting average drags down their team on-base percentage, which reduces the number of runners on base when the Mets do manage to hit one over the fence, which leads to fewer runs.
The Mets, who again have hit the most home runs since 2015, rank ninth among the fifteen NL teams in runs scored during that same period. This is bad because in baseball, the hitting team wants to score runs. The Mets don’t score that many runs because they don’t get on base enough. Since 2015, they rank thirteen of fifteen in on-base percentage, with only the rebuilding Phillies and Padres trailing.
It gets worse with runners in scoring position. In those situations, the Mets maintain their approach but the power disappears: They walk and strike out at average rates, but their isolated slugging drops from second in the NL to eleventh, despite the Mets still hitting way, way more balls in the air than any other team. Basically those fly balls stop turning into homers with men on base. Maybe it’s bad luck. Maybe the Mets try to pull outside pitches and hit easy fly balls to center. Maybe they pop up too many pitches. It might be a fluke, but then again we’re talking about 3500 plate appearances over three seasons. I suspect something about their approach isn’t working for the Mets.
(They’re also a slow team, and so despite A. not having a ton of guys on base and B. not hitting the fewest ground balls, the Mets have still managed to ground into a normal number of double plays since 2015.)
This fly-ball lineup isn’t an accident. Sandy Alderson’s front office has favored home run hitters, maybe to the Mets own detriment. Alderson signed Curtis Granderson, who hit fly balls before it was cool. After the 2015 season, the Mets said goodbye to the double-play combo of Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada (a combined 17 home runs in 2015) and replaced them with Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera (a combined 46 home runs in 2016). The Mets also traded for Jay Bruce last year despite not having a place to play him. Lucas Duda, Bruce, Curtis Granderson, and Walker are extreme fly ball hitters. Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, Jose Reyes, Wilmer Flores, and Cabrera all hit the ball in the air as well.
And this Mets lineup has hit like you’d expect a lineup of extreme fly ball hitters to hit. They hit home runs, but also plenty of pop ups and catchable fly balls. Most of their home runs are solo shots. The team can score in bunches, but they hit for a low average and struggle with situational hitting.
Bruce, Granderson, Walker, Duda, Reyes, and potentially Cabrera can become free agents after this season. The Mets should think about replacing some of them with less extreme hitters. Help should also come from the farm system. Amed Rosario is a ground ball hitter, as are Gavin Cecchini and Brandon Nimmo. Who knows what the Mets major league hitting staff will tell them, and young players often realize hitting ground balls doesn’t always work on well-groomed major league infields and against major league infielders. But it’s not like the Mets minor league system is filled with Jay Bruce clones.
The Mets should aim for a better balanced lineup next season. This is not to suggest the Mets bring back Luis Castillo to slap the ball around the infield. Good fly-ball hitters are obviously preferable to bad ground-ball hitters. But maybe a more heterogenous mix of hitters would help the Mets take better advantage when they put men on base and when their fly balls do leave the park.