With his recent comments that Jason Bay shouldn't have been benched for a game, former hitting coach Howard Johnson has re-inserted himself into the conversation regarding the Mets' offense. Now that most plate discipline stats are at least 70% reliable, let's compare the hitters this year to last year and see what the tale of the tape says. Is this year's hitting coach - Dave Hudgens - any better than last year's model?
We can look at runs and hits per game. The Mets are scoring 4.22 runs per game this year, and last year that number was 4.05. They've got a .329 OBP and .380 SLG, and last year those numbers were .315 and .383 respectively. Those numbers do suggest that the team is hitting better this year. But they are not conclusive. They are results, and results are the interaction of process and environment. Results have the tinge of luck in them. The Mets have a .303 BABIP this year, and had a .287 BABIP last year. That means something.
But is there some way we can look at the players under Dave Hudgens this year versus Howard Johnson last year and find something conclusive in the numbers? We have to leave the primary results and move towards numbers that capture the process a little better. Perhaps by looking at the plate discipline stats we can find a less luck-driven comparison.
First up, let's look at the swings. Intuitively, this is the easiest place for a hitting coach to make his bones. When to swing and not swing has to be the first conversation of any strategy session, it seems. These swing percentages are indexed against the league average because that average changes from year to year. In other words, a batter that has a .91 O-swing number is swinging at pitches outside the zone 9% less than average. Hopefully the color coding will help. Orange-ish is bad, green-ish is good, and the darker the better or worse.
The differences seem stark with the colors there to help out. The Mets as a team are swinging less at pitches outside the zone. They've made that all-important switch from being worse than the average team at reaching to being better. Key players like David Wright, Angel Pagan and Ike Davis have all made large strides, with David Wright leading the way. Sure, they've been swinging a little less at pitches in the zone, but that's fueled at least a little bit by a little more reluctance to swing in general. The team is being more selective and more patient.
Now let's look at the contact they're making.
The first columns are intentionally left un-color-coded. Sure, more contact is better, but is it really that great to make more contact outside the zone? Often those are outs. Better to make more contact in the zone, which is what the Hudgens-led 2011 team is doing. While they were already better at avoiding the whiff that the average team last year, they've taken that ability to new heights this year. And, once again, two key players have made large strides in that important category. Both David Wright and Jason Bay, who have had contact issues in the past, are whiffing less under Hudgens than they did under Johnson.
Unfortunately for Howard Johnson, there aren't many ways that his lineup was hitting better than Dave Hudgens' lineup. Of course, a few young players may have advanced on their own, and some of David Wright's improvement might just be some regression to his career means. But when the team numbers - both in terms of results and process - look better now than they did last year, it doesn't give Johnson the most solid foot to stand on.
It's really hard to give the hitting coach much credit or blame, but it's clear that Hudgens deserves more of the former than the latter so far.