The Future Of Howard Johnson, Hitting Coach

With the Mets having won just three times in their last 15 games -- including a 2-9 road trip to begin the second half of the season -- everyone is looking for answers. The players want answers. The fans want answers. Talk radio and the local papers want answers. Ownership, the front office, and the field staff, they want answers, too. Right now, though, nobody has answers.

Well, we do have one answer, to the question of what the coaching staff will look like on Tuesday: it probably won't look any different than it does now. That means stays of execution for Howard Johnson, Dan Warthen, Razor Shines, and certainly Jerry Manuel. Whether this is merely an electrical malfunction or an honest-to-goodness call from the Governor we may not know for a while.

When the axe does fall, many figure that Johnson will be the first to go, with the Mets having scored just 23 runs in their eleven games since the break and just 13 runs in the nine losses. To what extent Johnson is responsible for the most recent stretch of offensive uselessness is anybody's guess, but it's certainly less than "complete responsibility" and probably much closer to "no responsibility whatsoever". But what is a hitting coach's job if not to coach the hitters, and how else can he be reasonably evaluated except by the performance of those hitters, or at least by the rudiments of performance, i.e. the approach to hitting. In other words, even if the results are suboptimal, the process might be sound.

Or not. Here's where the Mets rank among National League teams in a few cherry-picked categories.

OPS: 13th
OBP: 14th AVG: 12th
SLG: 13th
BB: 14th
wOBA: 13th
LD%: 14th (i.e. they aren't hitting the ball hard, either)
O-Swing%: 15th (i.e. they're swinging at a lot of balls outside the strike zone)

On aggregate, this paints an ugly, woeful picture of the Mets' approach at the plate: They have been unproductive, impatient, light-hitting, and undisciplined. In short, the offense has been an utterly spectacular mess, and the Beyond The Boxscore Power Rankings, which have consistently listed the Mets well below their actual record this season, are beginning to look not-so-shockingly prophetic.

While the evidence against the Mets' offense belonging to anything but an also-ran is damning, I still have no idea if Hojo is to blame for it, and I'm not sure if I ever will. Much the way we (almost) invariably evaluate managers by the overall performance of their teams, hitting coaches are ultimately judged by the performance of their hitters. If the team is an offensive juggernaut, it's doubtless that the hitting coach will get far too much credit for making it so. Conversely, if the lineup is a bottomless pit of suck, more often than not culpability falls at the feet of the hitting coach and, at least as often, his job falls shortly thereafter.

If the Mets keep hitting as they have, Hojo is going to get the axe sooner or later whether or not this morass of ineptitude is at all his doing. If that happens, he'll be replaced by someone, perhaps a hitting guru, and maybe the Mets will immediately start hitting better. If they do, it might be because the new hitting coach is a wonderful teacher who "gets" hitters. Or maybe it'll be because the Mets just needed to shake something up. Or maybe it'll be because decent teams sometimes start hitting well for no reason at all.

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