Was hitting coach Hudgens really the problem in New York?
The Mets are seven games under .500 three-plus years into the tenure of the current front office, so maybe it was inevitable that someone got fired. And with 252 runs scored, the offense is middle of the pack (ninth in the National League by runs per game). Hitting coach Dave Hudgens made an easy target for someone in the Mets’ organization. But was it the right move?
That’s a hard question to answer. But by focusing on the peripherals of the team, and perhaps even the career of Lucas Duda, who played all but a hundred or so of his plate appearances under the tutelage of Hudgens, maybe we can try to evaluate the move.
In some ways, focusing on results understates the problem. Yes, the Mets are middle of the pack in runs, but their underlying numbers are worse. Their weighted runs created — calculated by weighting each offensive event according to its impact on the game in the past — is 11 percent worse than league average and near the bottom of the National League. They walk more than any team in the big leagues, but with that walk rate has come a high strikeout rate (sixth-worst)… and none of the power that usually comes with taking pitches. The Mets have the second-worst slugging numbers in the National League.
Of course, the hitting coach can only work on the process; he can’t hit the ball. Research suggests that the major axis between hitting coaches is between those that preach patience and those that preach aggressiveness.
It’s clear which one Hudgens is. To some extent, he was hired with the Mets for improving the Indians’ on-base percentage across their minor league system, and his larger-sample work with players that have had other hitting coaches shows that his batters tend to swing less and reach less at pitches outside the zone when they work with him.
It’s problematic to give him the success for the entire team, considering he didn’t acquire the talent or take the swings himself, but here are the Mets’ league-relative rates when it comes to plate discipline peripherals since he started in 2010 (100 = league average):
Hudgens took some issue with the idea that his hitters were just taking pitches — "swing at every pitch until it’s not your pitch" is how he described the team philosophy to me — but it looks like the team reach rate data supports the idea that his players were laying off pitches outside the zone more often under him. He took a team that took fewer pitches than league average and left with a team that took 2 percent more pitches per plate appearance than league average.
Duda can help us put this into perspective a bit. Every year he’s been in the big leagues, he’s swung less than the league average. His career reach rate is also better than the league average. But this year he’s swung a little bit more, and he admits it — "I’ve tried to be more aggressive, even if the situation will dictate what you do in the end." Even in this more aggressive version of himself, he’s a patient slugger with the 15th-best walk rate in the National League.
And in his own words, this find (he was a seventh-round pick with questionable power coming out of USC) appreciates what Hudgens did for him — "I owe a lot to him — not only is he a great hitting coach, he’s a great person." For one, Hudgens always told me that Duda was at his best when he was spraying to all fields, and the player agreed: "When I shoot that left-center field gap, that’s when I feel like I’m at my best." This year, Duda has the lowest pull rate and the highest center-field rate of his career:
When pressed, Duda felt that the number one thing that he took away from his sessions with Hudgens was to "Stick to your plan and stick to your approach — stay with what you do best." Even if results didn’t come right away, a good process would eventually produce good results.
That’s an important thing to remember when evaluating Hudgens. Because the home park came up when the topic of his dismissal was broached. The Mets have struggled at home, to a .119 Isolated Slugging Percentage (.145 is league average, and all teams have a .122 ISO in Citi this year), and some think that the park has gotten in their heads. It looks like it has. Look at the reach, line drive and flyball rates at home and away for the Mets:
And Duda admitted to some change in his approach at home, even. He called the park a "big factor" and said that "maybe you tend to swing a little harder when you try to hit it out of that ballpark." But his inner Hudgens won out: "We can’t let the ballpark dictate our approach." For what it’s worth, Hudgens called a team hitter’s meeting and discussed these splits with the team as soon as he was made aware of them… less than a week before his dismissal.
In the end, Duda felt that "if you’re going well, it doesn’t matter where you play." And that might speak for his hitting coach, too. After all, Hudgens felt that his general philosophy wasn’t too strange — "look for a pitch that you can do damage on early and then battle on two strikes." He can do his best to keep track of each hitter’s "keys" and then try to "get them back on track and treat each one as an individual." But ultimately, this was a lineup that’s doing largely what it was projected to do — projections had them scoring 3.6 runs a game and they’re currently scoring four a game — and looks like it’s a bat or two from contention.
By the numbers and the account of at least one player, the philosophy Hudgens was preaching was getting through to his players. But the home splits on a team that’s probably a hitter or two away from a full lineup ended up sinking him. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when a team is struggling, anything can be enough to fire a hitting coach. Even a good one.