Yesterday at Tradition Field, MetsBlog’s Michael Baron talked with Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens about Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and other young hitters he is working with this spring…
Michael Baron: We’ve heard a lot about how you’re helping Lucas Duda slow things down in the box. How do you get that to carry over to live action?
Dave Hudgens: That’s the next step. Every step of the way, there’s going to be more anxiety, more tension that comes into it. So what we’ve been concentrating, more than anything, is relax his mind. Try to slow down his heart beat and his mind, deep breath. Trying to get him to relax. Even trying to put him into those situations where there’s 40,000 people in the stands in his mind, and trying to understand what he has to feel like. He’s making some physical adjustments, but it comes down to a mental adjustment. Because the reason for all of that pre-pitch movement is because his mind is racing so much. In the cage, it’s easy. No one is screaming at you, no pressure. As the game builds up and the pressure builds, that’s where he’s got to handle it mentally and develop a routine to where he can calm himself down It’s going to be a process, but, so far, I’m happy with the way it’s going.
Michael Baron: Kirk Nieuwenhuis struggled a little with the breaking pitch last season. How can you help him with that and get him to the next level?
Dave Hudgens: When he first came up, he didn’t have a problem with those breaking balls. The key is laying off those pitches you should be lay off, and that comes down to pitch recognition. When you start struggling a little bit, guys start chasing hits, and chasing results. Whenever you start doing that, you start a little bit earlier. … I try to teach the guys, if you see spin down — knee high or thigh high — if it’s spinning, you have to discipline yourself. But when you’re hunting hits, it’s very difficult to do. That’s how it snow balled with Nieuwenhuis a little bit. He couldn’t calm himself down and he wanted to hit so bad, he was committing himself early and not recognizing those pitches. My suggestion to [the hitters] is early in the count, we’re tracking pitches. Right now, we’re going down and watching our pitchers on the side and watching that spin. Then when the games begin, hunt fastballs. [He] can hit breaking balls, but it has to be a breaking ball that’s up.
It’s great to hear Hudgens talk about pitch recognition. As the season went on, we saw the Mets struggle badly in that area, and – as Hudgens told Baron – it’s like a quick sand situation: the more a player presses for hits, the more more likely he is to start his swing early. And, once he commits, it makes him more susceptible to getting fooled.
In the first half of the year, it seemed like the Mets were letting the game come to them offensively. They worked deep counts, they let at bats play out, and they grinded pitchers down. But, as the intensity level picked up in July, they seemed to get away from this approach. With valuable Major League experience under their belt, I’m interested to see how Duda and Nieuwenhuis adjust. I’m encouraged by the path Hudgens has them on this in spring.