Making the case why Jeff McNeil should be the starting second baseman

New York Mets v Washington Nationals - Game One
New York Mets v Washington Nationals - Game One / G Fiume/GettyImages

When Steve Cohen and the New York Mets put Jeff McNeil on Major League Baseball’s trade block this offseason, they placed a poised offensive weapon and a load of competitiveness on the table for the rest of the league to target.

The numbers alone speak for themselves: a career slashline of .299/.364/.459/.823 complemented by 37 home runs and 152 runs batted in, McNeil has earned the reputation of a pesky, top-of-the-order threat. Though his 2021 season was unimpressive (though those struggles likely can be attributed to the Mets coaching staff blunder that year), McNeil’s value within the Mets organization lies even beyond the chalk lines, within the clubhouse and dugout. Drafted in 2018, the Santa Barbara, CA native has always faced criticism, whether it is about his unique golf-esque swing, his vocality, or the abundance of helmet slams, he is under constant scrutiny from the tri-state media. It is important to try to understand the minds of today's athletes, and to make an effort to comprehend their respective style in terms of how they approach their business. Being one of the most passionate ballplayers in the MLB, and an unsung clubhouse leader, the Mets would be unwise to move McNeil out of Queens, N.Y. as the 2022 season quickly approaches.

The Numbers Complement the Versatility, a Win-Win for the New York Mets and Jeff McNeil:

The career .361 rOBA says enough (.036 higher than the MLB average in a four-year span), and so do the plethora of other offensive numbers and accolades, but perhaps the most undervalued aspect of McNeil’s game is his defensive versatility. In his 405 career games he has spent 182 at second base, 46 at third base, and 173 in the outfield (served four as a designated hitter). He has demonstrated a unique selflessness to the Mets his entire career, filling whatever gaps the club has needed filled while executing at a high level. Now, with certain Mets infield vacancies unsettled, it is of the club’s best interest to go into 2022 with the feisty, hard-nosed McNeil as their second baseman.

It is uncertain whether Robinson Cano will return to league-MVP form once he returns to the team in 2022, and re-signing infielder Jonathan Villar who was surprisingly effective in 2021 is not a guarantee either. Though Cano, who tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug stanozolol in November of 2020, made eight All-Star rosters while winning five Silver Slugger and two Gold Glove Awards through his career, and Villar tallied 113 hits and 42 RBI in 2021, Cano is entering his age-39 season and Villar is inconsistent and erratic, not to mention a strikeout nightmare (132 strikeouts in 454 at-bats last season). McNeil gives you the best opportunity to win games day in and day out, and the Mets have major intentions on winning: winning now. Allowing McNeil back to his primary position substitutes the time he would be spending reacclimating himself to different locations on the field, with time spent dedicated to spraying the ball around on offense and returning to the Jeff McNeil everyone knows he is. Allowing him to be comfortable at second base will translate to major benefits for this Mets club.

McNeil, who is entering his fifth season as a Major Leaguer, is a throwback and it is quite refreshing to see. His style revisits baseball’s adolescent days, where hitters came to the plate ready to fire: times when pitchers were not allowed to get ahead in counts so effortlessly. On first pitch offerings, McNeil holds a career .394 batting average, 19 home runs, and 53 RBI (his most in any count), and according to Baseball Savant databases he attacks the first pitch in 48.6% of his at-bats: 19.4% more than the league average. This type of successful aggression would benefit the Mets, who as a team in 2021 registered a substandard .221 batting average with an on-base percentage of .309 in deeper counts (pitches thrown after 1-1 counts): bottom 10 in the Major Leagues that year. “He is fascinating once you get to know him, as a human being and as a hitter,’’ former teammateTodd Frazier told the New York Post in 2019. “He reminds me of a Juan Pierre kind of hitter, puts the bat on the ball, not as fast but he is a table-setter. He battles his butt off.”

Understanding Jeff McNeil's Unique Competitiveness and Embracing it as Part of the Culture of the New York Mets:

Now, McNeil has faced some controversy regarding his response to failure. When he strikes out, makes an error, or a mistake on the basepaths, everyone knows it. His facial animations and verbal shouts are not ideal or professional at some times, but they reveal a caliber of competitiveness and care that is rare in baseball today. In a league where emotions are bottled up by higher officials (Commissioner Robert Manfred often fines players for outbursts), it is refreshing to see passion. When supporters of a team look at a player, the first thing they want to find is an innate passion and desire to win for the club. Fans do not want to question an athlete's heart or hustle, and in New York especially, fans do not want to sense any sort of laziness or ungrateful behavior.

It is fair to say the helmet slamming and cussing is excessive with McNeil, and it is understandable for fans to feel unsettled about his mode of expression in terms of how he approaches failure in this game where failure is bound to happen often. However, understanding where McNeil’s intentions are, and where his heart is when frustrated is also paramount. The “Flying Squirrel” comes from California, arguably the most talent-dense state in America in terms of baseball competition, and went to a smaller Division 1 school at Long Beach State. He has always been crowded over, and overshadowed in a way, so he plays this game with a chip on his shoulder. McNeil would run into a wall for his teammates (if you do not believe it, refer back to the homestand against the Washington Nationals in August of 2020), and would go to war for this city: that is all a fanbase can ask for in a player that represents them.

McNeil belongs here, and he always has.

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