Recently the New York Mets took the lead in the top of the first inning for the fifth straight game, setting the tone early in their 11-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. The Mets hitters looked extremely comfortable in the batter’s box, taking aggressive swings at good pitches all game. The result was 11 runs all scoring through six home runs. After hitting only two home runs in the first eight games of this season, the Mets have hit 17 home runs over their last five.
Every good team hits home runs, especially timely home runs. However, great teams don’t need a lot of home runs. Great teams live by the old adage, get on, get over and get in, meaning, get on base, advance on the base paths and score.
Since the wild card playoff system began in 1995, only two of 21 World Series championship teams finished in the top four in home runs during the regular season (2008 Phillies, 2009 New York Yankees). However, during the same span of time, eight of 21 World Series championship teams finished in the top four in on-base percentage during the regular season, including 13 champions finishing in the top 10.
Home runs are an exciting, quick confidence boost for a batting lineup. The only problem for a home-run-reliant team is home runs come in bunches. Between facing MLB pitching every night and the natural difficulty in hitting a home run, sustaining home runs every game and the corresponding confidence is extremely difficult.
Conversely, a lineup with high on-base percentage forces the pitcher to uncomfortably pitch from the stretch more often and drives up pitch count which helps get the opposing starting pitcher out of the game earlier and into the opposing team’s weaker bullpen pitchers.
Currently, the Mets rank sixth in Major League Baseball with 19 home runs, two behind the third-ranked teams. However, the Mets rank 21st in MLB in on-base percentage, 20th in batting average and have scored 56.6% of their total runs through home runs (30 of 53 runs).
Comparatively, the St. Louis Cardinals rank third in MLB with 21 home runs. However, the Cardinals are second in MLB in on-base percentage, fifth in batting average and have scored 44.2% of their total runs through home runs (38 of 86 runs).
Additionally, the Mets are 24th in contact rate (percent of swings on which contact was made) and 29th on O-Contact rate (percent on which contact was made on swings outside the strike zone) according to FanGraphs. What does that even mean?
A low contact percentage creates fewer balls in play resulting in a lower opportunity for the Mets to get hits and a greater challenge advancing runners along the bases. The O-Contact rate shows the Mets aren’t hitting bad pitches, particularly two-strike pitches, well, a staple of many great teams (see 2015 Royals, recent Cardinals and Giants teams). Making high contact percentages with pitches outside the strike zone lowers strikeout rates, forcing opposing pitchers to throw more pitches and puts additional pressure on the fielders to complete more defensive outs.
Additionally, in the nine games the Mets hit one home run or none, they averaged 2.9 runs per game. In the other four games hitting two or more home runs, the Mets averaged 6.8 runs per game. Obviously, runs per game will be higher when two or more home runs are hit but the disparity shouldn’t be as high as almost four runs or 2.3 times as high.
I’m not suggesting Mets hitters can’t manufacture runs through singles, extra-base hits and taking extra bases (not only by steals but going first to third on singles). I’m not suggesting it’s time to panic. I’m suggesting it’s something to pay attention to as the season progresses.