In-depth: Line drives fit Mets, Wright

It’s about an hour before the final game of the Mets-Reds series in Cincinnati last Thursday afternoon and David Wright has plenty to do.

“Day games are tough,” he says as he turns down a request to chat with a reporter. “Gotta get my work in.”

For Wright, that’s about making sure his approach and swing are consistently producing what the Mets need most-- line drives.

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary defines a line drive as “a solidly batted ball that approximately parallels the ground during its flight, rather than arching in the manner of a fly ball” and cites its first usage in 1895.

BA By Batted Ball Type
2011 Season (Source: Inside Edge)

By most calculations, line drives result in hits around 70 percent of the time. They are the highest percentage play for a hitter.

There are multiple statistical sources that chart batted balls by type and it’s an inexact science. But the sources do agree that the Mets have increased their rate significantly, going from a line drive on one of every six balls in play in 2010 to almost one out of every five in 2011.

That looks like a small jump, but it takes them from being one of baseball’s worst teams in line-drive rate to being above-average.

Because they’ve put balls into play more frequently this season, it’s also made them one of the most prolific teams in the majors in total number of line drives. The team is averaging 5.3 per game in 2011.

If the Mets can maintain what they’ve done so far this season, they’d finish the year with about 125 more line drives than they hit in 2010. That should add another 80 to 90 hits to the team tally.

Offense is down this season, but the Mets are on pace to score 70 more runs than they did in 2010. Line drives are a big part of why they are 14-1 in games in which they manage at least 12 hits, but no home runs.

“Everybody’s trying to hit a line drive, right?” said second baseman Justin Turner, when we broached the subject of hitting approach.

Highest Line Drive Rate
Mets in 2011

Indeed, it is common sense to most players to try to hit line drives (particularly when your home ballpark is as cavernous as Citi Field), but it’s not an easy thing to do.

“It’s about being on time,” said Baseball Tonight analyst Aaron Boone, describing the process.

“What’s ‘on time?’ Being ‘on time’ allows you to be in a powerful position, to see the baseball like it’s a beach ball. The front foot has to get down in plenty of time. Then its hips, then hands. That allows you to pop the ball. Guys who get in trouble are the ones who commit their hands before their hips. They hit too many ground balls.”

A lot of factors can determine whether a hitter is “on time.”

Let’s take Wright as an example. When Wright was playing with the stress fracture in his back, he couldn’t hit line drives.

In the 22 games Wright played between suffering his stress fracture against the Astros (on April 19) and when he went on the disabled list in mid-May, Wright hit just .215, with a .250 BABIP (batting average when putting the ball in play for the defense to field). Those numbers are way out of whack with Wright’s career norms.

In that span, Wright managed only eight line drives out of the 56 times he made contact, a rate far below what he’d typically produce.

The various batted-ball evaluators peg Wright as being someone who hits 100 to 110 line drives per season. For a month, he was hitting at a pace that would have netted half that many over a full year.

Since Wright’s return, he’s produced a line-drive bonanza -- 13 line drives in 43 turns ending with contact. Of those 13, 11 have resulted in base hits.

David Wright
Since Return From Injury

Wright has been amazingly effective against pitches in the lower-third of the strike zone or below. He has 12 hits in 16 at-bats that ended with a pitch to that spot (as gauged by MLB’s Pitch F/X system) since his return, five coming on line drives.

In technical terms, hitting coach Dave Hudgens described Wright’s approach as “keeping his front side closed and being short to the ball, having a short hand path to the ball.”

While watching Wright on Monday night, ESPN baseball analyst Bobby Valentine noted that Wright had made an adjustment to his approach recently in how he brings his elbows back, in conjunction with the toes on his front foot tapping the dirt.

That gives him the right mechanics to produce the proper line drive swing.

“He has a lot of margin for error with his approach,” added fellow Baseball Tonight analyst Doug Glanville.

For Wright’s part, he’s made both a physical and mental adjustment, such that he no longer worries about his injury when he’s at the plate.

“It’s a hard enough game,” Wright said after the Mets completed their four-game sweep in Cincinnati. “It just compounds things when you’ve got something else on your mind.”

What has been on Wright’s mind recently is matching the output of his teammates. He’s listened to Hudgens approach of making the most of the pitches he sees in the strike zone. And he’s watched Daniel Murphy and Turner rake line drives all season. Both are enjoying stellar offensive years Wright still has time to have one of his own.

“A lot of things in baseball are contagious,” Wright said. “A couple of guys get hot and they can pick up the whole team.”

The work Wright referenced earlier that Thursday afternoon paid off in the form of three hits, including a fifth-inning line drive single in the Mets 10-9 win. That streak would reach 10 games before ending in Monday’s loss.

“David is in a comfortable state right now,” Boone said. “He’s very talented and gifted. He works hard and he’s very focused. Sometimes that gets in his way, but right now he looks like someone who is letting his ability perform.”

"In-depth" appears Tuesdays during the regular season.