The Mets held a four-game lead in the National League East on the morning of Aug. 1. They woke up on Wednesday in third place, four and a half games behind the Atlanta Braves. They also awoke to a blustery tweet from their owner, Steve Cohen.
“It’s hard to understand how professional hitters can be this unproductive,” Cohen tweeted on Wednesday morning, while most of the Mets were in San Francisco, probably sleeping off a five-game losing streak. “The best teams have a more disciplined approach. The slugging and OPS numbers don’t lie.”
Hours later, the Mets responded with eight empty innings against a parade of Giants pitchers. They recovered just in time, tying the game in the ninth and winning it, 6-2, in 12 innings. It was the Mets’ first victory this month against a team with a winning record.
“The boys are excited,” said Kevin Pillar, whose three-run homer put the Mets ahead in the 12th. “I think we got a little bit of momentum. I think we got the monkey off our back a little bit.”
But what about the owner? Pillar said the players had talked with each other before the game about Cohen’s tweet, emphasizing attention to detail. But the Giants’ shifting band of pitchers — their starter, Anthony DeSclafani, left early with an injury — kept the Mets off-balance for much of the game.
That’s how it is against the best teams, though, as the Mets are learning this month. The Dodgers swept them over the weekend at Citi Field before the Giants beat them twice at Oracle Park. Now, like Kevin Bacon in “Animal House,” the Mets face more punishment from the same tormentors, with four games at Dodger Stadium and then three at home with the Giants.
Tuesday’s loss wasted a strong start from Marcus Stroman, who is playing the part of Jacob deGrom as an ace with a deceptive won-loss record. Stroman has been consistently solid all season, with a 2.84 earned run average that belies his 8-12 record.
Even without deGrom — who has elbow inflammation and no timetable for a return — the Mets’ pitching gives them a chance to win most nights. No wonder, then, that Cohen has grown as impatient as his struggling hitters.
“I understand where he’s coming from,” Mets Manager Luis Rojas said. “We’ve all got to be held accountable for the team performance, and I think the players are very vulnerable. They come here and say that they’re frustrated — some of them say that they’re underperforming and they’re working really hard. I mean, we’re all in this. It doesn’t single out one player. It doesn’t single out one coach.”
But Cohen did specify that the offense, which ranked 26th in the majors in slugging percentage (.380) and 24th in on-base plus slugging at .693 entering Wednesday’s game, was to blame. They have not had an O.P.S. that low in a winning season since 1984.
Is plate discipline the problem?
Through Tuesday, the teams that had swung least often were the San Diego Padres (44.7 percent), the Yankees, the Houston Astros, the Dodgers and the Giants, in that order. All of those teams held playoff spots.
The Mets had swung at 49 percent of all pitches. Only three teams had a higher rate: the Boston Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Royals. The Mets are chasing the Braves, the Royals are one of the worst teams in baseball, and the Red Sox are still well above .500 despite a recent slump.
So aggressive swinging is not necessarily a bad thing.
But the Mets are trying to shake the habit, without much luck. They ranked second in the majors in swing percentage in both 2019 and 2020 and had hoped to change that when they fired their hitting coaches, Chili Davis and Tom Slater, in early May.
“Getting on base and hitting for power, it’s the approach that’s been preached to a lot of the guys that are here on this team,” Rojas said. “They came through a minor-league system where that was preached to them.”
The last couple of years, Rojas added, “we have the spray-the-ball, make-contact, put-the-ball-in play, all those things at the big league level, but those guys developed in the minor leagues with the approach that we’re preaching to them today. So our hitting coaches right now are a little bit more thorough with data than we were in the past.”
Of course, the Mets undercut their stated philosophy by trading for shortstop Francisco Lindor and then giving him a 10-year, $341 million contract extension. Lindor is a wondrous all-around player, but he is not known for plate discipline: His on-base percentage was .335 in 2019 and 2020 — respectable, but nothing special.
Lindor has missed more than a month with a strained oblique, and the shortstop the Mets acquired at the trade deadline, Javier Baez, is basically Dave Kingman with a Gold Glove. Baez has a career O.B.P. of .302 (same as Kingman) and is a notorious free swinger, with 17 walks and 145 strikeouts this season.
In any case, Baez played only 10 games for the Mets before landing on the injured list with back spasms. They do miss his power; without him, Pete Alonso has been the Mets’ only serious power threat, with 26 homers.
All of it seems baffling to Rojas, a longtime coach and manager in a farm system that groomed Alonso, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith.
“Those guys hit their way through the minors with this approach, a similar approach that we’re targeting today, which is getting on base and hitting for power,” Rojas said. “These guys have done it in the past; we just haven’t done it this year a lot. Petey’s got his share of homers, but there are other guys that should have more homers. Doubles and walk rate should be a little higher. That’s what we’re working on, hard, to get those individuals and others to be doing that.”
The Mets have been especially anemic against fastballs, a tough way to win in this era of flame-throwing pitchers. Their slugging percentage against fastballs, through Tuesday, was just .395 — 29th in the majors, ahead of only the rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates.
Some of the best fastballs in the world await the Mets in Los Angeles, with Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer scheduled to start in the series. No tweet from an owner can make that challenge any easier, but Wednesday was a start.
“The message was sent, and we got it,” Rojas said. “I just don’t want to attribute it to it. This is something that we’ve got to keep doing.”