Mickey Callaway had plenty of time to think and tinker with his lineup. The first-time manager had weeks in spring training to tweak where he wanted Yoenis Cespedes to hit and how to protect Amed Rosario to let the young shortstop mature as a hitter. He had weeks to figure out that Brandon Nimmo was his best leadoff hitter and Kevin Plawecki was the catcher he wanted to use on Opening Day.
And the Mets’ new skipper hit a home run with his managerial debut Thursday, but things are about to speed up for him now. The games and changes will come faster and under less than ideal conditions, so it will be interesting to see how the lineup and the patient approach emphasized by Callaway and hitting coach Pat Roessler evolves — or doesn’t — over the next few weeks.
Thursday was certainly a change of pace for Mets fans. Instead of being reliant on the longball, the Mets managed to score nine runs without a single home run on Opening Day. How rare is that? Well, last season the Mets scored at least nine runs in a game just 12 times and hit at least one home run in 140 of their 162 games. In fact, nearly half of the runs the Mets pushed across the plate in 2017 came off the home run. They scored 327, or 44%, of their 735 runs via a home run last year.
And the Mets are still built the same way. This roster relies on strong starting pitching and guys who can hit home runs. Nine Mets players are projected to hit at least 10 home runs in 2018, according to baseball-reference.com.
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But the Mets spent this spring working on patience at the plate and they showed it off Thursday. Instead of swinging for the fences, they waited for Carlos Martinez’s emotions to get the better of him. The Mets drew nine walks (they drew at least nine walks only three times last season) and took advantage of most of the Cardinals starter’s mistakes.
“This is no slight to him at all because he’s one of the premier guys in the game, but he can get to where he buries himself in his own hole. He started doing that a little bit today,” Jay Bruce said Thursday. “The wheels can start falling off just a little bit sometimes. You almost have to let it happen and really stick to your approach and capitalize on mistakes.”
It began with Brandon Nimmo being hit by a pitch in the first inning, advancing on a walk to Jay Bruce and then scoring from second on the Cardinals’ error on Asdrubal Cabrera’s fielder’s choice.
That may not be as sexy as a bomb that sends the Citi Field home run apple thrusting toward the sky, but it is just as effective.
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So, that is the idea that Roessler, who served as the assistant hitting coach for the past three years, emphasized this spring.
“(Roessler) is about as thorough as can be,” Callaway said. “He wants all of our guys to be an all-around hitter, not just be a one-facet guy. Go up there and swing for the fences is not going to work.”
Even Yoenis Cespedes, who is earning $110 million over four years because he often does swing for the fences, has bought into the idea of patience.
“We have the talent,” Céspedes said through the team interpreter. “We just have to work on our strike zone to choose better pitches and make better swings.”
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Clearly, Cespedes listened this spring and is trying to balance that patience with his natural instinct to swing for power. It’s a delicate balance not just for a guy projected to hit 23 homers this season, but for a team that is built around the power hitters.
Bruce, who hit 36 homers last season and is projected to hit 29, knows the dingers will come eventually, but the lineup has to stick to the game plan like they did Thursday.
“That’s what we went in thinking, and we really had the approach to make him throw strikes,” Bruce said. “You don’t want to be the guy that takes the bad at-bat or gives at-bats away.”
Now that the Mets have tasted some success with Callaway’s lineup and Roessler’s approach, it will be interesting to see if they can stick with it beyond Opening Day.
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