Prior to 2021, anyone who wanted a sense of just how gifted an overall hitter Jeff McNeil was need only look at his 2019 season. The remarkable thing about his production that year was not just in his overall numbers on the season—although putting up a 144 wRC+ is always going to be pretty dang impressive—but rather in how he got there. In the first half of the season, McNeil looked like he would be the leading contender for the NL batting title with a .349 batting average, with the only real “flaw” in his game being that he didn’t hit many homers (just seven in 75 games). Then in the second half, he suddenly switched his approach and began hitting for more power (16 homers in 57 games), which did result in a bit more swing-and-miss to his game and a decrease in his batting average (.276 in the second half). His overall offensive production, however, remained roughly the same in both halves—147 wRC+ in the first half, 140 wRC+ in the second half.
The takeaway from these results? Jeff McNeil was such a talented hitter that he could basically decide what kind of production he wanted to provide for his team. If he wanted to be the high contact, high batting average type of hitter, he could do it and do it well. If he wanted to be more of a power hitter, he could do it and do it well. Most guys are either one or the other—the fact that McNeil could basically transform himself at will showed a level of pure offensive talent that few other players could provide.
And really, he has demonstrated that offensive talent throughout his entire major league career. So there was truly no reason to expect that anything would be different in 2021. And yet, something remarkable happened this season. McNeil did not hit for a ton of power. He also did not hit for a particularly high average. Frankly, there isn’t anything that he did particularly well offensively. Instead, the best word to describe his offensive production this season is a word that could never have been applied to his skills with the bat until this season.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff McNeil was simply a boring player to watch at the plate this year.
Virtually every element of McNeil’s offensive game was boring in 2021. His power numbers were at an all-time low, as he put up a career-low .109 ISO. He also struck out at a career-high 13.6% of the time and did not uphold the increase in BB% he’d demonstrated in 2020. He struggled against both lefties (83 wRC+) and righties (94 wRC+). Despite previously being a proficient hitter who was easily capable of handling whatever defensive positioning opposing teams tried against him, he now seemed physically incapable of hitting the ball anywhere except directly at a player. His final overall numbers—a 91 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR in 120 games played—were a far cry from the player he has been in his first major league seasons with the Mets, and the team’s overall offensive struggles were in large part because of that.
Defensively, McNeil continued to be a jack of all trades, though the majority of his playing time came at second base, his most natural position. The defensive stats, as usual, tell an uncertain story (4 OAA and 5 DRS in 605.2 innings, but a -9.9 UZR/150), but certainly the eye test always seemed to indicate that he was a perfectly serviceable second base partner next to Francisco Lindor’s Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop. Of course, the Mets subsequently acquired an even better defensive player with the Javier Báez trade at the deadline, and the move meant that a large portion of McNeil’s playing time in the final few months of the season came in left field. In his third year of getting playing time there, he still rarely looks like a natural outfielder, but he also generally avoided embarrassing himself too badly. He did not get a ton of playing time at third base (just five innings of work), so it’s unclear if the Mets still see him as a viable option there. Nevertheless, assuming he remains on the team moving forward, the team will need to figure out what position will be his long-term home, which will likely in large part be determined by the other moves and acquisitions the team makes.
Of course, we can’t talk about McNeil’s 2021 season without addressing the infamous “rat/racoon” incident in which he reportedly got into a fight with Francisco Lindor in the clubhouse in the middle of the game. Certainly, getting physical with the franchise’s new $341 million player is not going to be a good look, particularly when the details that have emerged about the fight indicate that it was largely the result of McNeil’s obstinance. Mind you, if this were just an isolated incident, it might be easier to dismiss its relevance in the grand scheme of things. But even before this year, there were questions about the amount of visible frustration he would show on the field during rough moments. Such concerns were previously easier to dismiss since A) it’s pretty hard to be angry at anybody for something like that when their overall offensive production is so strong, and B) being such a strong hitter meant that these outbursts were fewer and farther between to begin with. In 2021, however, the f-bombs and dugout screams became too common a sight as his struggles continued. At a certain point, the question does arise as to whether his anger gets into his head and makes it harder for him to rebound from rough patches.
If we’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about McNeil moving forward, it’s this: while so many of his numbers declined in 2021, the one thing that was largely consistent with his career norms was his hard hit percentage. According to Statcast, his percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 MPH or higher was 27.8%, 36%, and 26.5% in the three seasons prior to 2021, respectively. The percentage this year, meanwhile? 33.4%—higher than any year except his career-best 2019. And despite that, his BABIP—which had always been above .330 in previous seasons—was at a career-low .276. While it’s hard to suggest that the entire reason for McNeil’s poor season was bad luck, the fact that he was seemingly still making solid contact is at least one potential sign that a comeback may be in store for him in 2022.
The Mets better hope it is, at least. McNeil was just one of several players on the team who performed far below expectations in 2021, which is why they were sitting at home in October. The job of the front office now is to determine which of those players will be most likely to rebound to their previous levels of production—a task which is easier said than done. It is entirely possible that McNeil will rebound from this rough season, revert back to his previous self, and make 2022 a blip in an otherwise successful career. If that winds up being the case, the Mets will want to make sure that he still has a prominent place on the roster in years to come. However, if the struggles he showed this year were indicative of larger issues with him as a player, then both his long-term prospects and his future in the Mets organization become points of significant uncertainty.