NEW YORK — You could argue that the New York Mets woke up on Opening Day down 1-0, metaphorically, after the loss of closer Edwin Díaz to injury in the World Baseball Classic, that they took the field that day down 2-0 after the news that marquee free-agent signing Justin Verlander would start the year on the injured list due to a mild muscle strain.
At first, it didn’t feel that way. They started the season 14-7, after all. But returning home Friday to face the Colorado Rockies, the Mets find themselves all the way back at .500. This week, they lost both Max Scherzer’s return from a sticky stuff suspension and Verlander’s first start back from the IL during a miserable, waterlogged Detroit series.
Wear, tear and unsettled air have caught up to the team over the past two weeks, and so has the too-frequent challenge of literally playing from behind. Through Thursday’s game, their 32nd of the season, Mets hitters had already logged 480 plate appearances while trailing on the scoreboard. In 2022, they took their 480th trailing plate appearance on June 2, in their 53rd game.
That’s not a huge surprise — the Mets rocketed to a 35-17 start last year — but the change can be jarring.
“When you get on a losing streak, there is a little more, I'd say, sense of urgency when you get down early in the game,” veteran outfielder Mark Canha said Friday, “and it maybe kind of feels like there's more pressure.”
The starting rotation’s woes are clearly the origin of the problem. Scherzer was suspended. Verlander just returned from injury, José Quintana is out until at least midseason, and Carlos Carrasco has missed time. David Peterson’s struggles got him optioned to Triple-A. In total, it amounts to a Mets rotation offering fewer innings per start than all but three other teams and tallying fewer quality starts than any other club. The Mets starters collectively have the second-worst park-adjusted ERA- in baseball, besting only the Oakland Athletics.
And the tentacles of that problem appear to be dragging down the offense as well. The Mets lineup assembled in 2022 and largely carried into 2023 prioritizes patience, the art of making pitchers work and reaching base. Last season, they ran MLB’s second-best on-base percentage and third-lowest strikeout rate. There are different ways to get there, of course. Jeff McNeil is a master of making contact. Brandon Nimmo exhibits incredible control of the strike zone. But hitters generally are aiming to stay true to their own strengths, no matter what the scoreboard says.
“Pressing” is a more emotional diagnosis than we can make without being inside a player’s head, but we can statistically say this: So far in 2023, Mets hitters are taking uncharacteristic approaches when the team is behind in games, and it’s not working.
When the Mets are even or ahead in games this season, their lineup swings less often than any other in baseball, 43.6% of the time. When the 2023 Mets have been behind, though, they’re swinging 46.3% of the time, or around league-average.
“That might be just unconscious,” star shortstop Francisco Lindor said Friday, noting that he planned to bring it up in a meeting with his fellow hitters. “We’re trying to do too much.”
Swinging less is not inherently good, but it’s generally a solid tactic in today’s game. And often, it is a sign of hitters controlling the flow of action, waiting for the pitches they can drive or happily taking first base.
Lindor and Canha emphasized that approaches should stay the same even if the team falls behind in the first inning. Across MLB, on aggregate, it does. The league swing rate typically remains within a tenth of a point for teams leading, teams trailing and teams in a tie game.
The Mets’ variation might not sound like much, but it speaks to hitters who aren't in their comfort zones. The Mets lineup has a .240/.341/.389 slash line when tied or ahead, with an MLB-best 17.9 strikeout percentage (K%) and a strong 11.8 walk percentage (BB%). When trailing, the line is .234/.301/.386, with a 24.0 K% and only a 7.3 BB%.
That’s not terrible overall production compared to other MLB lineups when trailing (it’s 21st by wOBA), but it’s out of character. And as Canha and the Mets know, the best versions of their bats are perfectly capable of erasing huge deficits.
“Whatever the deficit is,” Canha said, “you have to get it back one baserunner at a time. It has to be a methodical thing.”
So there is room for some of the team’s best hitters to take a step back and adjust. Lindor is swinging at 51.5% of the pitches he sees when the Mets are down, which would be a career-high swing rate over a full season, and only 46.4% when they are tied or ahead.
Slugger Pete Alonso has been more noticeably out of sorts. When trailing, the club’s top power threat is hacking at 48.9% of the pitches he sees and batting just .216 with a .273 on-base percentage. Tied or ahead? He’s offering at just 39.8% of pitches — including far fewer outside the zone — and batting .288 with a .346 on-base percentage.
Some of this is just human nature. Some of it might stem from other factors, such as a tiring West Coast swing or a discombobulated, rain-interrupted week. Some of it will get easier if Verlander and Scherzer get rolling and the Mets face fewer plate appearances with their backs against the wall. No matter what, it’s a trap baseball players don’t want to fall into.
“I think people want to try to make something happen. And when nothing keeps happening, it’s kind of your natural human tendency as a competitor to say, ‘Let’s go, go, go,’” Canha said. “And sometimes that’s the answer, and sometimes it’s not.”