CHICAGO — Just before the All-Star break, Zack Wheeler sat in front of his locker at Busch Stadium and undid the seams on a baseball. The Mets righthander methodically took the leather off and started unraveling the string inside.
One of the Mets pitchers frustrated by the rate of home runs against them was looking for an answer.
The Mets pitchers were not the only ones wondering what was going on as balls kept flying out of ballparks across the major leagues. Heading into Tuesday night’s games, there were 25 hitters who had already hit 30 home runs this season. Giancarlo Stanton had 54. Just three years ago, there were 11 hitters who reached 30 home runs.
Hitters don’t think it’s the ball, just them catching up to pitchers who throw hard.
Mets hitting coach Kevin Long believes hitters see hard-throwing pitchers more frequently. He said teams are putting more emphasis on approach and preparation. His best student, current Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, agrees.
“We have a little bit more knowledge and access and video in the moment. A bullpen arm, I am not having to go to the computer, I have the iPad right there,” the former Mets second baseman said. “Also, the approach does seem to have changed. Guys are a little more willing to hit the ball in the air. Seems like the floor of the home run total is rising. That’s my perception, at least. I don’t know if anybody is going to hit 70 again, Aaron (Judge) might and (Giancarlo) Stanton hit two more yesterday, so he may come close.
“But, it looks like the floor of players hitting home runs is kind of rising.”
So pitchers across baseball have had to figure out how to adapt.
For a team like the Mets, built around strong pitching, figuring out how to adapt to hitters is critical. As a team, they had given up 190 home runs, the 10th most in the league, after giving up 152 — the second fewest in the majors — last season.
So, in mid July, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen called a meeting with his troops. With young power arms, and their velocity being used against them, Warthen wanted to see them make adjustments.
“I think they have to use the inside part of the plate, quite a bit more,” Warthen said. “They have to be more precise on their offspeed pitches, be able to throw the ball soft behind in the counts. Realize what the hitter is doing. I think the hitting coaches and the hitters have done a great job of getting their balance underneath them, using their legs, being able to have that launch area. I think the teaching has been incredibly good throughout baseball. For us to get back, we’re going to have to pitch in more. Use our offspeed pitches more.”
Clearly, it hasn’t been an easy adjustment. Tuesday night, the Mets allowed three more homers in an 8-3 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
But Warthen has gotten through to some.
Jacob deGrom was an early adapter. Never a fireballer, he realized that when he amped up his velocity, hitters were using it to drive the ball over the fences.
“I think I have been throwing more offspeed, guys are definitely hitting fastballs better,” deGrom said. “So I just try to mix it up a little more.”
More importantly, however, is that Warthen wants the Mets pitchers to work inside more. And the rest of the staff is following.
“We started doing it probably the last six weeks more than we have in the past,” Warthen said. “You are generally supposed to throw 30% of your pitches on the inside part of the plate and 70-72 to the down and away area, but now, that goes to what the hitters are doing. They realize that, so for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish, we have to get them away from the down and away and get them into the inside part of the zone.
“We have to adapt.”