Pete Alonso and Mets take deep breaths and win games

Last season, the Mets led their division for four months before they crashed. They finished 77-85, their 10th losing season in 15. One of the main culprits: a foul that was one of the worst in Major League Baseball. Only three teams scored fewer runs, and those teams lost almost 100 times on average.

The Mets look completely different this year. They have the best record in the National League. They were second only to the Yankees in wins and the Yankees and Dodgers in points scored per game through Thursday. Their offense is more disciplined and patient, leading baseball in on-base percentage in a season after finishing 17th in this all-important statistic.

There are many reasons for the change: new squad, experienced forwards (Mark Kanya, Starling Marte as well as Eduardo Escobar), the return of players with improved performance after years (Jeff McNeil and Francisco Lindor) and new hitting coaches (Eric Chavez and Jeremy Barnes). However, you can’t discount a lot of deep breaths and a little bit of self-talk.

Keep a close eye on the Mets’ shots and you’ll see four of their top hitters — Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso, Kanya and McNeil — frequently step out of the batter’s zone, not only to adjust gloves or wait for signs from the coach, but also to to fill the lungs with air, calm down and direct your attention.

It’s not unique to the Mets – Raphael Devers of Boston, one of baseball’s top hitters, does it — and it sounds simple, but “it makes a big difference,” said Nimmo, 29, an outfielder. “There’s a reason Pete is doing this, that Jeff is doing this, that I’m doing this.”

“Of course it helped,” added Alonso, the first baseman. “If you look not only at us, but also at other guys, like every athlete, they have their own way of using it.”

During the 162-game regular season, even veteran players can find it difficult to control their emotions. A relatively healthy and capable player will rack up over 600 plate appearances a year, and each plate appearance is approximately four innings. Imagine that you are at the peak of your mental focus for at least 2,400 throws, many of which are approaching you at over 90 miles per hour and rushing in all directions, and some with game on the line.

“In any situation—in any serious situation—I would be lying if I said my heart wasn’t beating fast enough,” Nimmo said. “You feel this sense of unease that is taking over you. And the way to deal with it is to try to breathe a little, take a deep breath, and you can really slow down the heart rate.”

But it’s not just nerves that need to be fought, said Kanya, the outfielder. From the start of spring training to the end of the World Series, nine months of almost daily play. Kanya said that deliberately stopping his breath during a punch forces him to regroup.

“It’s so easy to lose focus day after day because it’s so repetitive and so monotonous that you need something to keep you on your toes,” he continued. “Otherwise there are times during the season when you go mindlessly and it’s almost like a routine and you’re really not 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 school days, he has always been able to take deep breaths and exhale slowly while playing. According to him, intelligence coaches helped him perfect this approach.

“I think about my plan on deck, visualizing where I want to see the baseball,” said Alonso, who had a strong 2021 season but is close to surpassing it this year (20 home runs, 66 IFR). 913 at the base plus a percentage of traffic until Thursday). “But when I go up there, it basically takes my breath away and my mind goes blank. The best thing is when I feel numb in a box and I just trust what I see and go from there.”

Kanya, 33, said that while he has read books on breathing techniques (“that’s a little silly”), he has developed his own method throughout his career.

“I am always breathing,” he said. “It’s important to just breathe in and hear the breath out.”

When Nimmo first made it to the big leagues in 2016, he says Will Lenzner, the Mets mental coach at the time, helped him learn more about the psychological side of baseball and how it could help him gain an advantage at the highest level. . sport.

Nimmo said that Lenzner helped him master visualization (the act of imagining success) and breathing techniques. During the game, Nimmo comes out of the box, takes a deep breath, and then says to himself, “Here’s what I want to do: I want to hit the line in the middle.” He said it allowed him to reset after every pitch, instead of letting his mind chase the moment.

“Slowing your heart rate allows you to think a little more clearly,” said Nimmo, who has a career .388 batting percentage on base, including a .361 mark this season, during which he has struggled with multiple injuries. “When your adrenaline spikes and when you get into an anxious fight-or-flight state, it shuts off the part of your brain that thinks critically.”

After a poor 2021 season in which he hit .251 at .679 pts per second, the 30-year-old McNeil is experiencing a resurgence. Among the Mets who have played at least 200 games this season, he leads with a .327 batting average through Thursday. His .850 OPS was second only to Alonso.

However, no Mets forward can calmly force an opposing pitcher to work harder than Kanya. Early Friday, he saw 4.25 innings 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 were second only to McNeil’s.

Kanya leads offense, breaking an MLB best .283 with runners in scoring position, one of the most intense moments on the plate, and it has come from behind in 16 of their 45 wins. At the plate, Kanya doesn’t just breathe; he also talks to himself.

“This is so that my bats have rhythm and so that I don’t forget or lose sight of my approach,” he said. “It’s kind of like a mantra. It’s not the same every time. It’s like, “This is what you’re trying to do, and stick to the plan.”

Kanya said that if he was looking for a fastball, he reminded himself out loud about it. Asked if the opposing team could hear him or read his lips, he replied: “They still don’t know where the ball is going.”

Whether it’s through fresh oxygen or self-talk, the Mets know where their offense has gone this season. They hope this will help them reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and possibly their first World Series title since 1986. Until then, Mets fans, take a few deep breaths.