The extent to which a coach really impacts the results on the field is often discussed, and usually no conclusion is made one way or the other. One camp asserts that coaches make the philosophical, motivational and physical adjustments to get the most out of players, and the other retorts the players will play how they play regardless of coaching.
While it is true that good players make a coach look good, great coaching can have a great and measurable impact on individuals and teams. With great coaching, one can go from wild college reliever with an ERA over nine in Division II ball and no scouts paying attention to you in May, to pitching in Rookie Ball for the New York Yankees in June.
When the Mets hired Kevin Long, for years revered as one of the top hitting instructors in Major League Baseball, to be their hitting coach during the offseason, the move was largely lauded. If anyone could muster the maximum amount of punch out of the seemingly mediocre lineup that the Mets have, it was Long.
Some were quick to dismiss Long’s past success, owing to it coming in Yankee Stadium, one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the MLB. Additionally, when Robinson Cano and prime Curtis Granderson are in your lineup, it’s easy to look good.
Coming over to the much more pitcher-friendly confines of Citi Field would prove a challenge for Long, even with the now twice moved-in fences. As we now flip the calendar page to May, it seems a good time to evaluate Long’s performance.
Consider the table below, which accounts for all Mets hitting during the months of March/April in the Sandy Alderson era (2011-2015). Pitchers have been excluded from the data. The 2015 data excludes the 8-2 loss to the Washington Nationals Thursday night, as the numbers on FanGraphs have not been updated as of this writing.
A few things immediately jump out here. One is that the great success in the 2012 season was driven by an incredibly high .347 team BABIP through the first month of the season. That is pretty obviously fluky, confirmed by the team finishing the season with a .301 BABIP. So, take the 2012 slash line with a grain of salt.
Another thing that sticks out is how awful the offense was to begin the 2014 season. Though that is the reason Dave Hudgens was fired, so it shouldn’t be that much of a shock.
The last thing is how noticeably things have improved year-over-year with Long as the hitting coach. In fact, one could make the argument that this is the best offensive start the Mets have gotten since the 2011 season – a squad featuring Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and a pre-ankle injury and Valley Fever Ike Davis.
There is nothing in the numbers to suggest that the Mets as a team are getting overwhelmingly lucky, nor is there a reason to believe that they can’t at very least sustain their current level of offense throughout the season. As the David Wrights and Travis d’Arnauds of the world return from injuries, others will likely slow down or go down in some kind of proportion.
The encouraging thing with this club is that while they have been slightly more aggressive this year than during the Hudgens era, they have decreased their O-Swing % leading to an increase in Contact %. This has led to an increase in balls in play, and explains how with virtually the same number of home runs and a fall off in BABIP, the team batting average has increased nearly 20 points.
Long doesn’t deserve all of the credit for the improvement – the addition of Michael Cuddyer, a non-slumping Granderson, and a somewhat productive Wilmer Flores have all helped – but Long’s fingerprints are all over the renaissance. Strikeouts are down without sacrificing walk rate. Even when making outs, the team is driving the ball with authority.
If the Mets are going to make a run at the playoffs, Long is going to need to keep producing results like this.
Joe Vasile is the voice of the Fayetteville SwampDogs of the Coastal Plain League.
 Right-handed pitcher Deshorn Lake had a 9.72 ERA at the University of Mount Olive in 2014. He came for the Fayetteville SwampDogs at the end of May, where pitching coach J.D. Jackson altered his approach to pitching. By June 28th, Lake signed a professional contract with the New York Yankees and debuted in the Gulf Coast League in July.