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Thursday, May 27, 2010
'Citi Ball' is working

By Mark Simon

It took a year, but the Mets seem to have finally figured out not just how to win in their new ballpark, but how to dominate there.

We call what they've done "Citi Ball" and it's been a pleasure to watch, particularly in these last four games, which have improved the Mets home record to 18-9, best in the NL.

What exactly is Citi Ball? Let's try to quantify it.

* Citi Ball isn't about hitting home runs (unless you're Rod Barajas, and maybe Ike Davis). It's about a different kind of approach to hitting, one in which you maximize everything you can possibly get from your batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

The major league average when a hitter hits the ball, and it doesn't leave the ballpark, usually ranges from .290 to .300. We previously explained what this means for a pitcher, using Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey as examples.

It's not quite the same for hitters. Batters can control their BABIP, to an extent, by hitting line drives and taking advantage of gaps that may be provided to them by the defense or ballpark.

Citi Ball is about not trying to do too much. It's about Jason Bay's line drives down the left field line, Jose Reyes' triples into the right-center field gap, and David Wright's taking a two-strike pitch up the middle for a single to center field, all things we've seen on this homestand.

For all the frustrations that he's shown with home runs not flying out, Bay has taken advantage of this park BABIP-wise, with a bunch of well-placed doubles and three triples.

So far this season, if Bay puts the ball in play in Citi Field, he gets a base hit nearly 43 percent of the time. David Wright's not far behind at 42 percent. When they get their bats on the ball (ie: don't strike out), a lot of good things seem to happen.

Their may be some luck involved, but on this homestand, using the eye-test rather than statistical analysis, it feels like they've figured out the best approach.

As a team, the Mets' BABIP at home is .313. That's only one point better than where it finished last season (when the Mets went 41-40 at Citi), so that brings us to our next point ...

* Citi Ball is about taking advantage on the bases, and this team is doing that in a big way.

-- The Mets are 32-for-35 in stolen base attempts in Citi Field this year, 7-for-7 in their last two games, and 14-for-their-last 15 overall.

-- They're 6-for-12 in cashing in the runner from first base on a double.

-- They're 21-for-35 scoring the runner from second on a double.

-- They're 15-for-45 at advancing the runner from first to third on a single.

Everything mentioned is above-average performance compared to what the overall rates in baseball were last season, in some cases by just a little bit. But being a little better than average can go a long way, as the Mets have found out.

* That's because of the pitching, and the fact that their pitchers have managed to give up long fly balls, just not the kind that goes for a home run.

Last year, the Mets allowed 81 home runs in 81 home games. This year, they've allowed 13 in 27 games, putting them on pace to halve last year's number. If you were going to pinpoint the biggest difference in the home approach, that's it.

Hisanori Takahashi has it figured out. In his two starts, he's thrown strikes at a very high clip (69 percent or better in both), without locating the ball in spots where he could give up meaty hits.

The Yankees and Phillies managed to hit the ball in the air against him 29 times in 12 innings, but could not score a run.

In a normal ballpark, that approach might not work (we'll see how Takahashi approaches his next start, on the road). But Citi Ball is about playing to this park, a big one, and his strategy works at Citi Field, so long as the Mets catch the ball behind him (which they have, with a couple nifty plays mixed in).

That brings up an important point. Citi Ball doesn't work everywhere (Bay's ugly road stats, as well as those of other Mets, are an indicator of that). But at least for these last four days, it's a strategy that is flourishing in Flushing.

In the last four games, the Mets BABIP is a highly-desirable .357.

They've hit 'em where they ain't, so to speak.