Earlier this offseason, I wrote about how the Mets could not afford to rely on guys with questionable 2021 performances if they want to compete next year. To their credit, the new front office has added Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar, and Mark Canha, pushing guys like Dom Smith and J.D. Davis into more suitable bench roles. As it currently stands, Jeff McNeil will share second base with Robinson Cano or man the keystone full-time if the designated hitter comes to the National League. In response to this, many fans have clamored for more additions, such as Kris Bryant, in order to limit McNeil to more of a utility role. And while someone like Bryant obviously improves the team, it goes to show just how quickly fans have forgotten McNeil’s previous success.
An Elite Hitter
McNeil first made the big leagues in 2018, posting a great 329/381/471 triple slash. In 2019 he improved on this, with a 318/384/531, showcasing his power and making the all-star team. His 143 OPS+ placed him 11th best in all of Major League Baseball. He again posted similar numbers in 2020, before dropping off a cliff in 2021. Oddly, many of McNeil’s peripheral statistics remained in line with his career numbers, leaving no obvious cause for his offensive struggles.
In 2021, McNeil posted strikeout rate and walk rate numbers almost identical to his 2019 campaign. Similarly, he maintained his hard-hit percentage, barrel percentage, and launch angle numbers. Thus, if the quality of contact is essentially unchanged, it supports the idea that McNeil has not simply declined or had a weakness exploited by opposing pitchers.
One obvious statistical difference lies in McNeil’s BABIP, or batting average on balls in play. Essentially, if McNeil’s quality of contact is similar to years past, one would expect similar outcomes once that ball is put in play. However, from 2018-2021, he posted the following BABIP numbers: 359, 337, 335, 280. Clearly, there was a notable drop off in 2021, in parallel with his decreased production. There are several possible explanations for this phenomenon. This could partially be due to simple bad luck; McNeil could hit a ball with the same launch angle at the same speed but by chance locate it directly at a fielder.
Another possible factor at play here is the shift. Interestingly, opposing defenses shifted against McNeil more than ever in 2021, 42.7 percent of the time compared to just 19.8 percent in 2019. One might expect that the shift significantly decreased McNeil’s success, but it was quite the opposite. With the shift on, McNeil posted a solid .336 wOBA — not too different from his career norms. Without the shift though, his wOBA was .274, far below his career numbers. From 2018-2020, he never posted a wOBA in absence of the shift below .369.
Why is this the case? It is hard to say exactly. McNeil profiles as a batter that can hit to all fields, and so one would expect him to hit well with the shift on, as he could take advantage of the empty left side of the infield. In 2021, he utilized the opposite field just as much as in years past, so that offers no explanation. In my opinion, one of the more likely explanations involves MLB’s manipulation of the baseball.
Juiced Ball Era
It is now widely known that over the past several seasons, particularly 2019, MLB games utilized a different ball, one with more “bounce,” which led to a significant increase in leaguewide offense. However, in 2021, an offensive decline indicates that the ball was no longer as “juiced.” In addition, in a report that feels not nearly as talked about as it should be, it came to light that in 2021 not only was a different ball used, but that MLB rotated between baseballs with different levels of bounce.
How does this apply to McNeil? Well, prior to his success in 2019, he was profiled as a slapshot, hit-to-all-fields guy without a lot of power. He seemingly proved this wrong when he posted a .531 slugging percentage in his second season, but in hindsight, this was very likely influenced by the juiced ball. One explanation that would make sense is that this past season, McNeil’s ability to use the whole field allowed him to continue to succeed while the shift was on. However, when the shift was not in effect and the non-juiced ball limited his power, despite his similar quality of contact, the ball just simply did not travel as far. Thus, contact that in 2019 may have been a line-drive homer now ends up in the right fielder’s glove.
Swiss Army Knife
Despite the apparent loss of production from McNeil, he can still have a major impact on the Mets in 2022. The one constant throughout his career, even in the minors, is that he can hit. High contact rates and low strikeout rates give him a .299 career batting average, and this skill has played at every level. McNeil has also shown the ability to adapt to different situations, like in 2019 when halfway through the season he changed his approach to become more of a power hitter. Ideally, MLB will do its job in 2022, and leave the dynamics of the baseball alone. Given a more constant environment, McNeil should hopefully be able to come around to something more like a 300/350/400 hitter at minimum.
The 29-year old also has value on the other side of the ball, having shown the ability to play above-average defense at 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. Thus, even if he doesn’t have a guaranteed starting role, he’ll be the first guy off the bench to fill in for half the team’s starters. In addition, he has the ability to hit well off the bench, with a career .916 OPS as a pinch hitter.
There has been significant speculation regarding the Mets trading some of their high-upside young hitters who struggled in 2021, namely McNeil, Dom Smith, and J.D. Davis. However, McNeil should not be placed in the same category as the other two. Involving him in a trade would mean selling low on a guy who was a legitimate top 20 hitter in the league just two years ago. No matter if his true talent is more like 2021 or more like 2019, he can play a key role on next year’s team.
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