clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jeff McNeil established himself as a star in 2019

New, comments

The long disregarded prospect permanently silenced the doubters and cemented his status as a building block for the Mets.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Mets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff McNeil’s debut in 2018 was fairly brief—he only appeared in 63 games for the major league team, as the front office resisted calls to promote him earlier in the season—but it was incredibly memorable. The then-26-year-old infielder did nothing but hit as soon as he was called up, and he ended his rookie campaign with a .329/.381/.471 batting line—good for a 137 wRC+—and put up an impressive 2.7 fWAR in less than half a season of play. While many experts had disregarded him as a prospect due to his age and lack of standout tools, he nevertheless made the most of this trial period by demonstrating an advanced hitting approach while playing a thoroughly competent second base.

Still, 63 games was not enough to allow McNeil to fully escape the skepticism that others had had about him throughout his baseball career, and based on the moves that the Mets made in the offseason, they didn’t necessarily take it as a given that he would be able to replicate the numbers he put up in 2018. In one nightmarish scenario, he may not have even been on the roster at all, as he was rumored to be involved in the trade discussions that eventually brought Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to New York. He thankfully did not end up being a part of that ill-fated deal, but between the acquisition of Cano, the subsequent signing of Jed Lowrie, and the continued presence of Todd Frazier, it seemed as though it would be difficult for McNeil to get any at-bats in the infield.

The tentative plan that the team formed to counteract this problem was to give McNeil the opportunity to learn how to play the outfield. In theory, the idea sounded nice—every team could use their own Ben Zobrist-esque player who could hop around to several different positions as needed, and the team certainly had a hole in the outfield unless they wanted to rely on Juan Lagares’s non-existent bat—but this is an organization that has a rather checkered history of trying to transition infielders to the outfield with disastrous results. There was thus still ample reason to be skeptical that this experiment would work out, and there was still reason to be concerned that McNeil would find himself on the bench more often than was warranted.

Of course, these types of situations often tend to work themselves out, and that more or less happened here. Lowrie, who had been one of the primary threats to take away McNeil’s infield opportunities, wound up more or less missing the entire season due to injury. And Frazier also missed a good chunk of the opening month with a left oblique strain, paving the way for McNeil to get plenty of playing time at both third base and left field in the opening stretch of the season. And he took that opportunity and did what he’s always done: he hit. And he hit. And he hit. By the end of April, he had a 159 wRC+, and it was eminently clear that he had to be in the lineup regardless of where he was playing.

McNeil continued hitting throughout the entire season, and he did so with a level of consistency that is rare for even the best major league players. He hit in every month of the season, with his lowest monthly wRC+ coming in May with a still above-average 107. He hit against righties—150 wRC+—and lefties—124. He hit as well on the road (145 wRC+) as he did at home (141). Opponents tried to shift against him, and he hit (.324 batting average in those situations). Opponents tried to play him straight-up, and he hit even better (.352 batting average). No matter what the circumstances were or how opponents tried to get him out, McNeil proved that the batting prowess he showed over the years in the minor leagues was no fluke.

One particularly fascinating detail about his season is how strikingly different his two halves were—and how he was similarly productive in both of those halves in spite of those differences. He was a hits machine in the first half—his .349 batting average led all of baseball—but his power numbers were somewhat unremarkable, as he managed just seven homers. In the second half, meanwhile, he began selling out for power a bit more, as his batting average fell to a still good but not otherworldly .276 and was accompanied with a 3% increase in his strikeout rate. His home run production surged at the same time, as he mashed 16 bombs in the last two and a half months of the season, with his walk rate also rising a bit. While he was essentially two different types of players in these two halves, his overall production in both of them—a 146 wRC+ in the first half and a 139 wRC+ in the second—was remarkably similar. This discrepancy arguably further cements his status as one of the better pure hitters in the game: regardless of what he is trying to do at the plate—hit for average or hit for power—he is able to succeed.

And what of his defense? McNeil ended up getting a fair variety of playing time around the field: 24 games started at second base, 16 at third, 45 in left field, and 38 in right. Predictably, there were some growing pains in his attempts to get acclimated to the outfield—the occasional awkward route on a fly ball and what not—but while he will likely never win a Gold Glove out there, he also was passable enough out there for his bat to ensure he would continue to provide value to the team. While defensive metrics are not always entirely reliable, some of the numbers for McNeil’s outfield defense—2 DRS and a -2.3 UZR/150 in 671 innings between left and right field—does match with the eye test telling us that he was unspectacular but acceptable out there.

His infield defense (0 DRS/-0.5 UZR/150 in 244.2 innings at second base and 3 DRS/2.4 UZR/150 in 154.1 innings at third) also suggests that his infield defense continues to be perfectly adequate as well. Third base did seem to be the position that he demonstrated the most prowess out, and ideally that would be the spot that he would get the most time at moving forward. Still, his ability to move around the field depending on the needs of the team will make him an even more valuable asset moving forward.

McNeil’s final line on the season was about as spectacular as you would expect: .318/.384/.531 batting line with 23 homers, a 143 wRC+, and 4.6 fWAR. Some of his counting stats would have been even higher if he hadn’t had a few stretches of missed time due to injury. His first two IL stints of the season were both the result of a hamstring injury, and they were both brief—the first occurred towards the end of May and kept him out of action for two weeks, while the second occurred in August and only sidelined him for eleven days.

Arguably the most serious injury of his year came at the very end of it, as his wrist was fractured on a hit-by-pitch in the final week of the season. He required surgery as a result, and while he should undoubtedly be ready to go by the time spring training rolls around, there may be some concern that the lingering effects from the injury will hamper his swing. But given his skills and adaptability as a hitter, one would think that he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he will be able to overcome any challenges he may face.

It’s ultimately hard to imagine how McNeil’s first full season in the big leagues could have gone much better. He—along with Pete Alonso, with whom he shares an incredible bromance—cemented himself as a staple in the Mets’ lineup, he made his first of what will hopefully be several All-Star game appearances, and he even got himself an adorable puppy who has already become an Instagram celebrity. It was a joy to watch him play this year, just as it will be a joy to watch him in the orange and blue for years to come.