Also, the Mets already employ a similar hitter at Dykstra's position, Lucas Duda, and the Mets cannot afford to carry another left-handed hitting first-base-only player.
"Not everyone gets a second chance, I kinda squandered my first couple of years," Dykstra told me.
He turned his second chance at professional baseball into successful seasons in Double- and Triple-A. History says he will have an even harder time becoming a big-league contributor. But that's not going to stop him...
On March 29, 2011, the Mets traded Eddie Kunz, their supplemental first round pick in 2007, at No. 42 overall, for Dykstra, the Padres' first round pick at No. 23 overall, in 2008.
At the time of the trade, Dykstra was a career .235/.388/.407 hitter in the Single-A Midwest League and the advanced Single-A California League. The Mets put Dykstra in Double-A, where he hit a career-high 19 home runs. They put him in Double-A again 2012, but a broken wrist in April kept him out until late June. In 71 games in Double-A in his age 25 season, he hit .261/.420/.410 with 12 doubles and seven home runs, good for a .149 isolated slugging percentage, or nothing that would suggest Major League level-production at first base. Then, in 2013, as a 26-year-old, he hit .274/.436/.503 with 22 doubles, and a career-high 21 home runs and 102 walks in 122 games in AA.
That year, Kunz was released by the Padres. Meanwhile, Dykstra earned the Eastern League MVP and was named the Mets' Sterling Organization Co-Player of the Year. He followed that up with a hot start (.395/.489/.526 - 13 games) in winter ball with Navegantes del Magallanes in Venezuala, before he broke his fibula and sustained a high ankle sprain in November that sent him back to New York for surgery.
Dykstra said that he treated the trade as a positive and he was happy to begin again with a new organization. As for his big 2013, and his fast start to 2014 (hitting .371/.500/.677 in the season's first 22 games and a Pacific Coast League Player of the Week Award already), he pointed to his work with longtime Mets' hitting coach Luis Natera:
"It was something that last year finally clicked for me. .... It’s almost been a three year process that’s kinda come to its peak. I owe a lot of that to Luis Natera, the hitting coach who’s been in Binghamton, who was just promoted to the big leagues. All the coaches that I’ve had, being with the Mets really kind of gave me a fresh start and put me on the right track where I could gain the confidence back that I once had. I think that’s huge."Confidence is a recurring theme for Dykstra, but there was an important physical adjustment that he and Natera have been working on, in which he learned to use his big body (6'5", 215 lbs) better and trust his own prodigious strength. With the Padres, Dykstra said, "I got into where I was trying to muscle the ball out of the park and was really barring my front arm and spinning with my shoulders."
Natera brought the focus back to the organs actually holding the bat, his hands.
"Everything starts with my hands, and I time everything with my hands instead of really trying to get my body going," Dykstra said. "Putting the main focus on my hands eliminates most of the other issues I was having."
Dykstra's bond with Natera became so strong that it became the subject of good-natured teasing from his teammates after Natera was promoted to the big leagues as the Mets' assistant hitting coach. His response was that he finally understands his own swing.
"I think it’s at the point now where I understand, we’ve done it so many times, of what we worked on and what I know how to fix now. Knowing your own swing is just something you can’t replace," he said.
For example, the left-handed hitter is now comfortable driving the ball the opposite way, to left field. In a four-game series against Reno April 15-18, he was 7-for-13, with three doubles, a home run and four walks for a 1.647 OPS over those four games.
Reno Aces manager Phil Nevin, who knew Dykstra with the Padres saw something to like in Dykstra's game.
"He hits the ball the other way very well. He really got into one – one of our guys has a pretty good fastball -- Bo Schultz -- and hit it out to deep right-center field," Nevin said. "He impressed me the way he handled the bat and his strike zone awareness."
To get a feel for how much damage Dykstra has been doing by going the opposite way, compare his spray charts from 2013 and 2014, from MLBFarm.com:
The clusters of Dykstra's doubles and home runs are circled. These charts are not perfect, but both Double- and Triple-A games have had MLB Advanced Media stringers in the last two years, so they should be roughly accurate. Note the aggregation of doubles near the rightfield line and the homers to straightaway right in 2013. In 2014, by contrast, two of his three home runs have been to left field, and one Nevin discussed, went out to right-center. In 2014, more of his doubles have gone to left field than right field.
Moreover, Dykstra still struggles at first base. As Nevin put it gently when asked about Dykstra's big league potential.
"He’d probably need to work a little bit defensively at first base, to be honest with you," Nevin said.