Last season, the Mets were in first place in their division for four months before collapsing. They finished with a 77-85 record, their 10th losing season in the past 15. One of the biggest culprits: an offense that was one of the worst in Major League Baseball. Only three teams scored fewer runs, and those teams average nearly 100 losses.
The Mets look starkly different this year. They have the best record in the National League. They trailed only the Yankees in wins and the Yankees and the Dodgers in runs scored per game through Thursday. Their offense is more disciplined and patient, leading baseball in on-base percentage a season after finishing 17th in that crucial statistic.
The reasons for the turnaround are plenty: new lineup additions who are experienced hitters (Mark Canha, Starling Marte and Eduardo Escobar), returning players with improved performances after down years (Jeff McNeil and Francisco Lindor) and new hitting coaches (Eric Chavez and Jeremy Barnes). Not to be discounted, though, are many deep breaths and a little self talk.
Watch closely as the Mets hit, and you will see four of their best hitters — Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso, Canha and McNeil — frequently stepping out of the batter’s box not only to readjust their batting gloves or look for signs from a coach, but also to fill their lungs with air, calm themselves and channel their focus.
It’s not unique to the Mets — Boston’s Rafael Devers, one of the best hitters in baseball, does this — and it sounds simple, but “it makes a big difference,” said Nimmo, 29, an outfielder. “There’s a reason that Pete does it, that Jeff does it, that I do it.”
“For sure, it’s helped,” added Alonso, a first baseman. “If you look at not just us, but other guys, like every athlete, they have their own way to kind of like harness that.”
Over the course of a 162-game regular season marathon, it can be difficult even for veteran players to control their emotions. A relatively healthy and capable player will amass over 600 plate appearances in a year, and each plate appearance is roughly four pitches. Imagine being at your peak mental focus for at least 2,400 pitches, many of them coming at you at more than 90 miles per hour and darting in every direction and some with the game on the line.
“In any situation — in any big situation — I would be lying if I said my heart wasn’t beating pretty fast,” Nimmo said. “You get this feeling of anxiety that comes over you. And a way to combat that is to try and breathe a little bit, take deep breaths and you can actually slow your heartbeat down.”
But it’s not just nerves that need to be combated, said Canha, an outfielder. From the beginning of spring training to the end of the World Series is nine months of near-daily play. Purposely stopping to inhale while hitting, Canha said, forces him to regroup.
“It’s so easy, on a day-in-and-day-out basis, to just lose focus because it’s so repetitive and so monotonous that you need something to keep you dialed in,” he continued. “Otherwise, there’s times throughout the course of the season where you’re walking mindlessly, and it’s like routine almost, and you’re not really focused on what you’re doing. So it’s kind of a way for me to just stay present and focused.”
Alonso, 27, said that since his high school days, he was always good about breathing in deeply and slowly exhaling while batting. Mental-skills coaches, he said, have helped him refine this approach along the way.
“I think about my plan in the on-deck circle, visualizing where I want to see the baseball,” said Alonso, who had a strong 2021 season but is on pace to top it this year (20 home runs, 66 RBI, . 913 on-base plus slugging percentage through Thursday). “But when I get up there, it’s basically taking my breaths and turning the mind off. The best is when I feel like numb in the box, and I just trust what I see and go from there.”
Canha, 33, said that although he had read books on breathing techniques (“that stuff is a little hokey”), he had developed his own method throughout his career.
“I make sure that I’m always breathing,” he said. “It’s just important to just inhale and hear the breath come out.”
When Nimmo first reached the major leagues in 2016, he said Will Lenzner, the Mets mental-skills coach at the time, helped him learn more about the mental side of baseball and how it could help him gain an edge at the highest level of the sport.
Nimmo said Lenzner helped him adopt visualization (the act of imagining success) and breathing techniques. During an at-bat, Nimmo steps out of the box, breathes in deeply and then tells himself, “This is what I want to do: I want to hit a line drive up the middle.” He said it allowed him to reset after every pitch, rather than letting his mind race with the moment.
“Slowing your heart rate down allows you to think a little more clearly,” said Nimmo, who has a career .388 on-base percentage, including a .361 mark this season, during which he has battled a few injuries. “When your adrenaline spikes and when you get into an anxious fight-or-flight state, it shuts down the part of your brain that thinks critically.”
After a down 2021 season in which he hit .251 with a .679 OPS, McNeil, 30, is enjoying a resurgence. Among Mets with at least 200 plate appearances this season, he leads them with a .327 average through Thursday. His .850 OPS trailed only Alonso’s.
No Mets hitter, though, is better at calmly making an opposing pitcher work harder than Canha. Entering Wednesday, he was seeing 4.23 pitches per plate appearance, the highest mark on the team and one of the best in baseball. His .286 batting average and .378 on-base percentage trailed only McNeil’s.
Canha leads an offense that was hitting an MLB-best .283 with runners in scoring position, one of the tensest moments at the plate, and that has come from behind in 16 of their 45 wins. When at the plate, Canha doesn’t just breathe; he also talks to himself.
“It’s so that my at-bats have rhythm and so that I don’t forget or lose sight of what my approach is,” he said. “It’s kind of like a mantra. It’s not the same thing every time. It’s just like, ‘This is what you’re trying to do and stick with the plan.’
If he is looking for a fastball down and away, Canha said he reminded himself out loud of this. Asked if the opposing team could hear him or read his lips, he retorted, “They don’t know where the ball is going anyway.”
Whether it is with the help of some fresh oxygen or self talk, the Mets do know where their offense has been going this season. They hope it will help lead them to their first playoff berth since 2016 and perhaps their first World Series title since 1986. Until then, Mets fans, take a few deep breaths.