A late-round draft pick whose slow rise through the minors pushed his major league debut past his 26th birthday, All-Star Jeff McNeil has already made a place for himself as a unique talent whose skill set transcends baseball’s current trends.
McNeil is a hitter, pure and simple. His .349 batting average is not only the best in the league this season, it’s the best mark by a qualified batter since 2010, and D.J. LeMahieu, the only player to come close in recent years, had Coors Field on his side.
The recipe to put up a number like this is straightforward in theory: don’t strike out and hit it where they ain’t. In practice, it’s more difficult than ever to accomplish those feat, but McNeil is thriving in both regards. His strikeout rate is below 12%, more than ten percentage points lower than the league average, which is climbing every year. He is doing this not via exceptionally patient at bats, as he swings more often than any other National League hitter and his walk rate is downright pedestrian. Rather, he relies on excellent plate coverage to ensure that he can make contact with nearly everything that comes at him.
While a .385 batting average on balls in play may seem impossible to sustain—and, indeed, only three batters over the last five years have kept up a BABIP as high as that for a full season—McNeil has the chops to do it. His bat control makes it nearly impossible to shift against him as he sprinkles his singles and doubles across all fields, though his power is almost exclusively to the pull side. And when teams do try to shift against him, his offensive production actually increases as he’s able to guide the ball to just about any opening on the field.
High-BABIP batters also rely on speed to add some infield hits, but McNeil just isn’t that kind of a player. His sprint speed is around league average, and he’s not known in general for his baserunning prowess. But his ability to go from home to first base in particular is actually much better than his raw speed would suggest, a rare combination in the majors, doing so in just over four seconds on average, the 11th-best home-to-first speed in the league, ahead of players like Dee Gordon and Jose Altuve. And sure enough, he has notched a dozen infield hits and three bunt hits. He’s not fast, but he knows how to make that break for first base better than almost anyone in the game.
McNeil knows as well as anyone that you can’t get on base unless you’re in the lineup, and his athleticism has made it possible for the Mets to get him in there in any number of ways. Once touted, perhaps not in entirely good faith, as a second-base-only prospect, he has now seen time at second base, third base, and both corner outfield spots with rumblings that he may get a shot at center. Not only that, but he has held is own thus far via both the eye test and some teeny tiny sample size defensive metrics. His Ben Zobrist-like ability to move across the field without sacrificing effectiveness is a rare accomplishment, especially for a team like the Mets with a lot of holes to fill.
Despite the winding path to the majors and a lack of fanfare upon his arrival, Jeff McNeil’s unique style of play has made him an everyday player, a fan favorite, and now an All-Star. Whether he’s dropping line drives over the infielders, making diving catches, or distracting opponents from the basepaths, he’s getting it done for the Mets like no one else.