The New York Mets 2019 All-Star is coming into his own. Jeff McNeil put up another successful season after an All-Star nod in the year before. McNeil has been one of the more consistent bats that the Mets have in their lineup. Wherever McNeil has played in the field, he’s been able to get the job done, with one exception.
Jeff McNeil only played nine games at the third base position, yet put up five errors. That is clearly not a good pace for Jeff, though the good thing is he doesn’t really have a set position. McNeil serves as the Mets ultra-utility guy as he played five different positions in 2020. Third base was his only weak spot and the New York Mets may now be able to keep him away from there.
Robinson Cano tested positive for PED’s yet again yesterday, leaving second base all to McNeil. The Mets could theoretically go after a LeMahieu if they wanted to take Cano’s spot. However, it seems likelier that the Mets will allow McNeil to man the position for the immediate future, and that’s the right choice.
McNeil Has Been Reliable Offensive Player in His Three Seasons
Jeff McNeil has arguably been one of the best offensive players for the Mets over the past three years. He has put up OPS+’s of 138, 143, and 131 in his first three seasons. One thing about McNeil is that he has not played a full season yet.
In 2018, he was called up in July and played out the rest of that year. In 2019, he was placed on the injured list on three separate occasions, which caused him to play only 133 games, and COVID-19 caused him to play only 52 this year.
So while we already know the potential is there for McNeil, he will cement himself as a premier player once he’s able to put up these numbers for a full season. McNeil’s 2020 numbers were a bit off a drop off from his All-Star campaign in 2019.
As a result, we will look at what McNeill needs to do to get back to those numbers, which shouldn’t be that tough of a hill to climb.
Decline in Slugging Percentage
One area that McNeil saw the biggest drop off was his slugging percentage. In 2019, his slugging percentage was .531. In 2020, it was .454. The drop-off basically accounted for McNeil’s drop in OPS, which is his on-base percentage plus his slugging percentage. McNeil was able to get on base at a similarly high clip in both 2019 and 2020, though his 2020 OBP can be attributed to an increase in his rate of walks.
McNeil had a breakout second half in 2019 with pulling the ball as he worked with Chili Davis to become more of a power hitter. His efforts did work out as he sixteen long balls following the All-Star break. Prior to that, McNeil was more of a pesky hitter, who would hit the ball all around the field and pick up some unorthodox hits. He also wouldn’t waste any time either as he swung at the first pitch seemingly every time.
Decreasing Chase % and Increasing Walk % Paves Way to Success
In 2019, Jeff McNeil had a walk rate of 16.2 plate appearances/walk. In 2020, he improved that to 10.45 plate appearances/walk, which shows is that McNeil became a much more patient hitter with an improved eye with respect to his previous year.
This can also be seen with respect to McNeil’s chase percentage, which dropped to 32.4% from 38% in 2019. As a result, his improved walk rate and decrease in chase rate from 2020 can be a reason for future success if continues on the track followed this year.
This is important for McNeil because he has been seen as more of a free swinger at times, and also as a hitter that doesn’t take a lot of pitches. In essence, McNeil loves to swing at the first pitch and doesn’t like to waste away at-bats.
Thus, it’s no surprise that his first pitch swing % was actually higher this past year than in 2019. It was 52.6 in 2020 versus 50.6 in 2019, so not too big of an increase, but one nonetheless. This is another key to his success and one way McNeil can look to build back on his 2019 All-Star season.
Strikeout and Whiff Levels Lower In 2020
Furthermore, there were significant improvements for Jeff McNeil with respect to certain pitches. Overall, Jeff was able to decrease his chase and strikeout percentage. This was seen all across the board, including breaking balls and off-speed pitches.
His whiff % for fastballs increased only slightly from 15.5% to 16.8%. With breaking balls, he decreased his whiff % from 26.9% to 18.8%, a significant improvement. Also, with off-speed pitches, his whiff % dropped from 26.4% to 17.6%. If McNeil is able to continue to improve at this pace, he will be able to have one of the better eyes on the club.
His strikeout levels in 2019 were strong as well as he only had 75 strikeouts in 567 plate appearances, for a 13.3% strikeout rate. In 2020, he improved upon that by striking out a measly 24 times in 209 plate appearances. This left him with an 11.5% strikeout percentage, good for 7th in the league, and in the 98th percentile. This shows although there were areas that Jeff declined from his All-Star 2019 season, he has also improved in other areas.
By continuing on that pace, he will able to replicate his 2019 season and likely go above and beyond it due to the improvements we’ve seen from his bat in 2020.
McNeil’s 2020 Success Hinged Upon His Ability to Pull
Another thing for Jeff McNeil is that he needs to get more barrel on his hits and increase his launch angle so that the ball carries in the air. Much of McNeil’s success in 2019 came from his increase in exit velocity, pull %, and barrel %. Much of this increase came in the second half of 2019, which also led to an increase in home runs for McNeil.
For instance, in the second half, McNeil increased his home run total from seven to sixteen. His slugging percentage also increased from .509 to .561. However, McNeil struggled to replicate this for the first two months of the 2020 season. His slugging percentage in July was .370 and .333 in August.
However, it seems he found his stride in September. His slugging ballooned to .567 and his OPS ballooned to almost 1.000. If Jeff is able to build on his September success he will be able to return to his 2019 All-Star form. On the other hand, if he resorts to the July-August form, that will be problematic for McNeil and the Mets.
Increasing His Barrel and Hard Hit % Keys to Return to All-Star Form
With respect to barrel and hard-hit percentage, McNeil saw declines from his 2019 season. His barrel % was a solid 2.5, which is a little better than his first year in 2018. Unfortunately, it’s a significant drop-off from his All-Star 2019 season in which he put up a barrel % of 4.8.
One possible explanation for this is his decrease in pull percentage. This means he was pulling the ball less and thus getting less barrel on the ball, resulting in weaker singles rather than hard-hit extra-base hits. Thus, his pull % dropped from 44.5% to 38.3%, while his percentage of balls hit up the middle and opposite field increased a bit.
Increasing His Exit Velocity and Launch Angle Also Key For McNeil
McNeil’s exit velocity in 2019 was 89 mph, which is not particularly high, ranked 136th in the league. In 2020, his exit velocity was 86.6 mph, which ranked 213th in baseball. For McNeil to return to his All-Star form, he needs to improve on his exit velocity as he sits in only the 16th percentile.
Harder hits will equal more extra-base hits and subsequently an increase in his slugging percentage, which is his main drop-off from last year. His launch angle has also decreased in the last two years, with respect to 2018. In 2018, his launch angle was 15.5, and that dropped to 13.8 and then 11.5 for the 2020 season. McNeil needs to pause the decreases in launch angle and instead turn these numbers around back to at least his 2019 numbers.
It seems that the wave in the game nowadays is to increase your launch angle because it will lead to more home runs. However, that doesn’t mean Jeff needs to become a power hitter to return to his All-Star success. McNeil’s success hinges on using the whole field and making contact. The home runs are definitely a plus for McNeil, but it’s not something that he should solely focus on. On the other hand, if he can increase his hard-hit %, he will barrel up more balls naturally, and the home runs will come.
Jeff McNeil had a successful 2020 season at its conclusion. However, that didn’t mean he didn’t have his struggles. His first two months were a struggle to get completely going, which is why his 2020 numbers saw slight decreases from his All-Star campaign in 2019. Much of this was due to a steep drop in his slugging percentage due to a decrease in his barrel percentage.
This means that he wasn’t hitting the ball as hard at first, even though his average remained around .300. In September, he was able to return to his 2019 form and we saw huge increases in not only his batting average but also on-base percentage, slugging, on-base plus slugging, etc. This can be directly attributed to McNeil’s increases in his average exit velocity, launch angle, and hard hit rate as well as a decrease in his chase percentage.
All of these statistics combined allowed McNeil to return to the All-Star form that he performed in 2019. By being able to build on this one month and translating it to a full season, many will begin to see continued sustained success from McNeil and hopefully from the New York Mets as well.