The path taken by Jeff McNeil to stardom is similar to the one followed by New York Mets teammate Jacob deGrom.
When discussing the career trajectory of New York Mets star Jeff McNeil, writers often say that he was a “late bloomer.” True, McNeil did not make his major league debut until age 26, having toiled around the minor leagues for several years after being drafted out of college. But when closely examining McNeil’s path to the big leagues and almost immediate success, it is clear that he has made a name for himself in a very similar fashion to Mets ace Jacob deGrom.
Though deGrom and McNeil are now indispensable to the Mets’ roster, their baseball careers both began in rather unassuming fashion. In 2013, the Mets drafted McNeil in the 12th round out of Long Beach State University, a pick that made very few waves across the MLB community. Similarly, deGrom was an under-the-radar 9th round draft pick out of Stetson University in 2010, having mostly played shortstop in college.
McNeil quickly established himself as a capable hitter in the Mets’ minor league system, hitting over .325 in each of his first two years in the organization and making it to Double-A by 2015.
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However, a series of injuries stalled his progress; beginning in 2015, McNeil dealt with a double sports hernia, a torn hip labrum, and a torn quad. By the beginning of 2018, he was still in Double-A.
If McNeil needed any encouragement that all hope for a major league career was not lost, he need only look to a star pitcher four years his senior. After deGrom was drafted in 2010, he made only six starts in rookie ball before having Tommy John surgery, which prevented him from pitching again in the minors until 2012. deGrom also broke his ring finger in 2013, further slowing down his progress through the minor leagues.
But deGrom managed to find his way to Queens in 2014 as an injury replacement for Dillon Gee and was never sent down again.
Four years later, McNeil also found himself the beneficiary of several injuries, receiving his big league call-up when Todd Frazier and Yoenis Cespedes were both on the injured list. As would become his signature, McNeil swung at the first pitch he saw in the major leagues and smacked it into center field for a single. He has not looked back since.
All Mets fans know about deGrom’s successes so far: Rookie of the Year, two Cy Young awards, four top 10 Cy Young finishes, two top 10 MVP finishes, and three All-Star games. But McNeil also has the potential to rack up some hardware for his awards cabinet. He quietly finished 6th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, despite appearing in only 63 games. And, much like deGrom’s sophomore All-Star campaign in 2015, McNeil was named to the NL All-Star team in his second big league season this past year.
McNeil and deGrom are as alike in their mental approaches to the game as they are in their statistical achievements. Both are hard-nosed competitors, determined to do whatever it takes to help the team win. deGrom is often quoted as saying that his #1 goal every time he starts is to “go out there and put up zeroes.” However, deGrom seems to hate losing as much as he likes winning; in his interview immediately after winning the 2019 Cy Young, he repeatedly alluded to the three bad starts in April that nearly derailed his season.
Likewise, when asked about his approach to the game, McNeil said in a 2019 edition of Rain Delay Theater, “I never want to get out, ever” and focused on how his goal is solely to help the team win every day. This may be why he cares about batting average above all other statistics, as it is perhaps the clearest indication of a hitter’s successes. McNeil led the NL in hitting for much of 2019, though he ended up 4th in the league when the season ended. Still, his style of spraying the ball to all fields and swinging at every strike he sees may well lead him to a batting title in the near future.
With deGrom’s meteoric rise to Cy Young-status as an example, what can McNeil hope for in the coming years? If both of their careers are any indication, a player’s major league potential may not be obvious to college scouts. It may not even be obvious to MLB scouts.
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But by following in deGrom’s footsteps and consistently working hard, while preparing to fill any role that the team needs, McNeil has created an enormous opportunity for himself with the Mets. He will be a big factor in the team’s 2020 plans, and with any luck, the “Flying Squirrel” will continue to have his way with opposing pitchers next year.