There is a certain irony in baseball. As we get smarter and smarter, it seems hitters averages go lower and lower. Part of the reason could be hitting .300 just isn’t nearly as valued as it used to be. In all honesty, it probably shouldn’t because we know there is more value in OBP, wRC+, or whatever other stats you choose to analyze.
With that, the chances of becoming the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams have gone by the wayside. Williams did it in 1941, and no one has done it since.
That was 82 years ago. The last time it happened in the National League was 1930 when Bill Terry hit .401 for the New York Giants. That’s over a century ago.
There was a time when we thought George Brett could do it. We were sure Tony Gwynn could, and he might’ve if not for the 1994 strike. Surprisingly, Ichiro Suzuki never really made the run at it we thought he could. However, now, it doesn’t seem like there is an obvious candidate anymore, and really, it is a feat which has been long overlooked.
Enter Jeff McNeil.
McNeil is a throwback hitter. In an era where it seems everyone has shifted to boom or bust, McNeil focuses on putting the ball in play. He’s the hitter who tries to hit it where they ain’t. That led to him hitting .326 in 2022 and winning the National League batting title.
McNeil is the type of hitter who is always going to have a shot to win the batting title. Now, with the new shift limitation rules, his batting average could go even higher than we ever imagined it could be.
Now, this concept runs counter to what Mike Pietrillo of MLB.com postulated. In his article, he did not the success McNeil had hitting against the shift partially due to his ability to go the other way. While his analysis is sound based on the numbers, we also know McNeil is a constantly adapting and evolving hitter in terms of his approach.
One does not simply shift on Jeff McNeil pic.twitter.com/NflmCFJ2nY
— SNY (@SNYtv) May 3, 2022
Take 2019 for example. The league adjusted to his rookie breakout season by shifting him more to go the opposite way. McNeil responded with a career hit 46.3% pull rate. That year, he hit .318 and had a career best 144 wRC+.
In terms of that, we do need to dig a little deeper on McNeil. Looking at his career, he is actually NOT an opposite field slap hitter. In fact, he only goes the other way 25.8% of the time. He has a much more up the middle approach. That type of approach was one of the most harmed by shifting with a middle infielder essentially standing on second base.
Another factor not contemplated is the new dimensions of right field at Citi Field. McNeil does have power to pull one out of the park. The change will only be about 8-10 feet. If you’re Pete Alonso who hits tape measure shots, that doesn’t matter as much. For a player like McNeil, it could make all the difference.
Now, there are other factors at play like how pitchers and McNeil adjust to the pitch clock. However, looking at the stats and how McNeil’s approach at the plate, it does seem like there is an opportunity for him to make a run at .400.
McNeil has the unique ability to adjust his approach to how the defense is positioned. As he adjusts, the defense is restricted in how they can adjust back to him. This is the perfect situation for him to make a run at .400. It is really going to be fun seeming him do something that hasn’t been done in a century.