Jeff McNeil was drafted by the Mets in the 12th round of the 2013 draft and was never atop anyone’s prospect list. He was projected by most to be a useful utility player at best and did play many positions during his minor league tenure. A contact-oriented hitter, McNeil hit for average at every level in the minor leagues and found himself in Double-A by 2015. But then a double sports hernia and a hip labrum tear caused him to miss all but three games of the 2016 season and a groin injury kept him out for most of 2017 as well.
But then something happened. At age 26, he got healthy and he began hitting for power. His fly ball rate climbed and ISO jumped to .130 in 2017 and then rose again to .250 in 2018 before he was called up to the major leagues. He hit 19 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018—twice as many as he had hit the rest of his minor league career combined. And despite the jump in power, he still wasn’t striking out. With McNeil tearing it up at Triple-A and the season having slipped away in June, many Mets fans were clamoring for his promotion to the big leagues.
But for the Mets, concerns about McNeil’s glove remained. Despite the fact that he logged minor league at-bats all over the diamond, the Mets passed at an opportunity to promote McNeil in mid-July when Todd Frazier hit the disabled list, with Mickey Callway calling him “purely a second baseman.” Nonetheless McNeil got his opportunity soon after that when Mets’ second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera was traded to the Phillies, opening up the spot for McNeil to play every day.
He didn’t disappoint—with the bat or the glove. He hit for the highest average in franchise history through his first 50 games. He ended up with a .329/.381/.471 slash line with a 137 wRC+, sustaining his low strikeout rate at the big league level. He struck out just 24 times in 248 plate appearances. This fantastic contact ability makes him the ideal candidate to hit second behind Brandon Nimmo in the lineup.
“We want to make sure that balls he swings at early are balls that he can do something with, he’s got such great bat-to-ball skills that he almost has to be careful that he doesn’t put marginal pitches in play,’’ hitting coach Pat Roessler said of McNeil. “He’s as competitive as hell. Nothing intimidates him. He thinks he can get a hit off anybody. He’s done a great job.’’
He’s done a great job in the field as well; concerns about his defense—at least in this small sample size—seem to have been unfounded. Gary DiSarcina worked with McNeil to hone his defense and it has paid dividends for the rookie second baseman. While it’s too soon to draw quantitative conclusions based on defensive metrics, qualitatively McNeil sure passed the eye test, even making extraordinary plays at second base on more than one occasion.
For a team like the Mets with many holes to fill and likely limited resources with which to fill them, second base not being an area of concern is certainly a welcome development. Whether it’s some sort of knobless bat magic or the real deal, it will be exciting to see what the next stage of McNeil’s major league career has in store.