McNeil Needs To Be McNeil To Succeed At The Plate
When Jeff McNeil was finally called up to the majors, he took full advantage of his opportunity. In 63 games, McNeil hit .329/.381/.471 with 11 doubles, six triples, three homers, and 19 RBI. Looking at the advanced statistics, this equated to a 137 wRC+ and a 140 OPS+. If he were able to replicate that going forward, he would not be just one of the best hitters on the Mets, he would be one of the best hitters in all of baseball.
John Edwards explained McNeil’s early season success in The Athletic. Boiling it down, McNeil does not swing and miss. Moreoever, with his approach at the plate, he is also not getting called strikes against him. Certainly, this was a recipe for success for McNeil in 2018, but the larger question for the Mets is whether it will be a recipe of success in 2019 and beyond.
While his contact rate is extremely promising, his other numbers were not. His 5.6 percent walk rate is downright bad. In fact, it is just a hair above Amed Rosario‘s, but as we know Rosario has not had the same level of success at the plate McNeil exhibited in a small sample size. This shows McNeil’s ability to get on base was almost purely BABIP driven.
While we are not yet quite aware of what McNeil’s true BABIP talent is at the Major League level, it is generally accepted a player’s BABIP typically falls around .300. Last year, McNeil’s BABIP was .359. If McNeil was to repeat his approach at the plate next year, he is going to have to yield a similar BABIP to be a productive hitter.
As Devan Fink examined in Beyond the Box Score, it is possible for players to maintain a high BABIP. For example, Aaron Judge has been able to maintain a career .356 BABIP partially due to his hard hit rate, which has been over 48 percent in two out of his three years. Last year, McNeil’s was just 30.2 percent.
In addition to hard hit rate, there has been some correlation between line drives and BABIP. For example, reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich has a career .359 BABIP and a career 22.3 percent line drive rate. That includes last season when he had a .373 BABIP and a 24.7 percent line drive rate. Last year, McNeil had a 21.6 percent line drive rate, which is a little promising.
The last potential factor is speed. While Fangraphs once noted the correlation between speed and BABIP isn’t a pronounced as many believe, there is some correlation. For example, according to Baseball Savant, Trevor Story has elite sprint speed traveling 29.6 ft/second. With his sprint speed, he had a .345 BABIP last year and a .340 BABIP for his career. Last year, McNeil had good, but not great, speed traveling 27.8 feet/second.
Breaking it down, other than the ability to make contact, there is not one outstanding skill McNeil exhibited in his 63 Major League games, at least not one which would indicate his ability to replicate that BABIP. It’s even more dubious if he’s as aggressive at the plate.
Fortunately, McNeil does not need to be reliant upon a high BABIP to have another good offensive season. When you look at his minor league numbers, he was not called up to the majors because he swung at a high rate of pitches while making a high rate of contact. No, McNeil was called up to the majors because he had a Daniel Murphy type of transformation.
Beginning with Binghamton, McNeil increased his walk rate to a slightly above average 9.4 percent. He combined that with an excellent 10.9 percent strike out rate. Judging from his time in the majors last year, we saw his contact rate translated well. Now, it is time for him to begin the process of better identifying his pitches to hit. If he can replicate that like he did in Double and Triple-A last year, we should see him hit for much more power.
Basically, McNeil has the skills to be a very productive hitter in the Major League level next year, and he showed how well some of those skills translated at the Major League level. If he is able to incorporate more plate discipline, he should be able to drive the ball more and become an even more dangerous hitter. If that is the case, the Mets will be an even more potent and dangerous lineup than initially believed.