Three years after his breakout season, Jeff McNeil has finally become the player the New York Mets hoped he would be in 2022 – and it’s not who he was at the end of 2019.
To be clear, McNeil has returned to being a hitting machine, much like he was upon bursting onto the scene. Through his first 65 games this year, he posted a .327 batting average with a .386 on-base percentage, both good for top-five in the National League at that point.
Gone, it appears, is the theater of McNeil slamming his helmet or cursing at himself in frustration – visuals that characterized a maddening 2021 season in which he hit just .251, more than 50 points off his career average. His start to 2022 was not only markedly better, but strikingly similar to his 2019 All-Star numbers, when he hit .318 and reached base at a .384 clip.
Despite the parallels to 2019, McNeil’s commitment to staying within himself as a hitter has made him better to the Mets now than ever before.
The key difference from a few years ago is McNeil’s power, particularly his frequency (or lack) of hitting the ball out of the park. Back in 2019, McNeil totaled 62 extra-base hits, 23 of which were home runs. This season, just four of his 22 extra-base hits through the end of June were home runs, putting him on pace for less than half of his 2019 output.
It is important to note that the power surge in 2019 came over time. Sixteen of his 23 home runs that year were hit after the All-Star break. Not surprisingly, it also coincided with a dip in batting average (.276 in the second half vs. .350 first half) and increase in strikeout rate (14.9% second half vs. 11.9% first half).
Those shifts point to the challenges McNeil has faced in replicating success since then. While he maintained a strong slash line in the shortened 2020 season, his power output in 2021 – seven home runs and just 27 extra-base hits – weren’t nearly enough to offset the dramatic dips to his hitting averages.
This season, however, McNeil has rediscovered the traits that made him who he was prior to that second-half power surge – hitting to all parts of the field while prioritizing solid contact and line drives instead of lifting the ball. It’s a renaissance of sorts for pre-analytics baseball that has filtered up and down the Mets lineup, thanks in part to a renewed approach fostered by first-year hitting coach Eric Chavez.
In McNeil’s case, the changes have been evident in watching him every day, while advanced metrics back up the eye test. Per Baseball Savant, McNeil pulled just under 32 percent of all batted balls through June, with the remaining 68 percent going up the middle or to the opposite field. By comparison, his pull rate was nearly 45 percent in 2019. And in terms of putting the ball in play, McNeil ranked in the top five percent in terms of lowest strikeout rate through the season’s first three months.
All of this is what made McNeil such an obvious candidate for a bounce-back season this year. His track record indicated what kind of hitter he could and should be – the key was for him to refocus on the approach that made him an All-Star not long ago.
This is the type of hitter the Mets need down the stretch and into the postseason, one that complements the power hitting they can rely upon elsewhere (i.e., Pete Alonso). It’s also the type of hitting that can bring McNeil sustained success – not just this year, but hopefully in years to come.