Jeff McNeil has continued to defy odds and take advantage of every opportunity given to him. He has now earned the New York Mets leadoff spot and no one is taking it from him.
An ideal leadoff man in today’s baseball world, though, is hard to find. He needs to steal bases at an elite level and this just isn’t a part of McNeil’s game. Quite frankly, it’s not a part of the strategy of many. Stolen bases are an afterthought and something mostly received for engaging in when Travis d’Arnaud behind the plate—I say while getting in some parting shots.
McNeil may not fill every desirable attribute of a leadoff hitter. He has, however, earned the number one spot in the lineup for every other reason other than an ability to swipe bags. He gets on base, puts the ball in play, and sets up the heart of the order well to drive in runs.
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There were a few things I wanted to see from McNeil this year that I haven’t. I wanted to see his home run numbers increase. This hasn’t happened, but he is knocking doubles to make up for it. His gap power does exist. As a result, I’m viewing those extra two-base hits as a single plus a stolen base a typical leadoff man would provide. There’s still a chance we see him find his home run stroke. Even if he never does, McNeil is doing a lot of great things we aren’t used to seeing.
Last year, many compared McNeil to Daniel Murphy. The ex-Mets second baseman was a king of contact and two-base hits. While true, McNeil is his own man. He’s a better hitter than Murphy was during his time with the Mets, more closely resembling the evil incarnate we suffered through watching when he was an MVP candidate as a member of the Washington Nationals. He does lack the power Murphy did eventually develop, but in a leadoff role, it’s getting on base we want to see.
After a month of baseball, McNeil is among the league leaders in several offensive categories including batting average and OBP. He’s also right up there in hits, choosing to slap mostly singles through the early going. These hits, though, are coming abundantly and while playing multiple positions on the field.
McNeil has no defined position this year. Because of this, the performance and security as the leadoff hitter is even more impressive. The odds are stacked against him for playing time yet he continues to prove why he belongs in this lineup and at the top of it.
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In the minds of many, McNeil looked like a future number two hitter. A better than expected ability to get on base has changed this. Past candidates, such as Brandon Nimmo and Amed Rosario, have their own warts to figure out. McNeil is better than both of them right now and until something changes, he’s the guy who must be at the top of the lineup.