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Jeff McNeil is different

A large swath of Jeff McNeil’s story is unique, right down to his excellent performance on the field.

Washington Nationals v New York Mets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Jeff McNeil is a unique baseball player, and he has been since his debut as a 26-year-old in 2018. His journey to the majors was unique, as well, with the lefty opting to play golf over baseball for the majority of his high school athletic career, playing baseball in only his senior year. He ended up with a scholarship to Long Beach St., was a 12th round pick, and fought though some major injuries to his lower body—which limited him to a combined 51 games in 2016 and 2017—to make the majors. And he has not stopped hitting since (note: he did stop hitting a little bit in 2021, but we move on).

McNeil is undoubtedly a steal for the Mets on the four-year, $50 million extension he signed in January, a deal that can be attributed to a likely-weird market for a player of his skill set and how the arbitration system suppresses wages in baseball. But McNeil has become one of the premier hitters in the sport in a completely unorthodox way for today’s game.

Since his debut in 2018, McNeil has been an elite offensive player. He enters 2023 hitting .307/.370/.458 for his career and a 131 wRC+ that ranks 26th in baseball since his debut and trails only Jose Altuve among second basemen. Sitting in the top thirty in wRC+ over a five-year span is no joke, and he has done it in a completely different way than everyone else on that list.

Among those players, McNeil has the lowest home run total with 46, ISO at .151, and walk rate at 6.8 percent. In today’s game, which leans towards players who walk and hit for power more and more with each passing year, McNeil putting up elite numbers in the way he has is downright special.

He has gotten to where he is simply by swinging and hitting the baseball; which sounds absolutely rudimentary on paper, but he is clearly zigging where the league is zagging. His batting average—a much-maligned stat which has some usage—is third in the league since his debut. He swings at everything in the zone, leading the league with a 83.1% zone swing rate. Couple that with a zone contact rate of 89.7%, higher than the usual league average of either 84 or 85%, plus an overall contact rate of 84%, which dwarfs the league average—typically around 76%—and you start to see how he gets his results. McNeil does not strike out much, with his 11.6% strikeout rate coming in as the best in the top thirty by three percentage points. He has a 91st percentile whiff rate, per Statcast. He simply swings at the ball, hits the ball, and good things happen because of it.

Jeff McNeil plays the game one way: aggressively. He swings at everything he deems a strike because he knows he can make contact with it. Pitchers are so good now that prioritizing an ability to score on one swing does make sense, but McNeil is able to thrive by his elite bat control skills and hand-eye coordination. These skills also age rather well, which is good news for everyone involved.

McNeil is a unicorn in the modern era of baseball, and his long and sometimes arduous road to the majors was rewarded with $50 million—or $63.75 million, if the Mets pick up the 2027 option—making him one of the homegrown stars the Steve Cohen-era Mets will continue to build around.