(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
Jeff McNeil was finally called up by the New York Mets on July 24th. Lost among the greatness of the rookies that entrench the NL East (Soto, Acuña) is how wonderful McNeil has been for the Mets. Since his promotion on the 24th, the Mets as a whole have played much better baseball winning 9/11 series. In his short stint with the Mets, the former unheralded prospect has amassed 1.8 bWAR/2 fWAR in 178 plate appearances. Among NL Rookies he ranks 3rd in wRC+, 1st in average, 3rd in OBP, 3rd in wOBA, 5th in fWAR, 1st in K-rate. Not bad finishes when you are directly Acuña and Soto who are currently producing incredible rookie seasons. Like most 26-year-old rookies he has both strengths and weaknesses that are becoming incredibly apparent as he gets more and more at-bats under his belt.
I like the idea of ending on a higher note, so we can start with some of McNeil’s weaknesses so far in his Major league career. Firstly, scouts were worried about how his power would translate with the jump in competition. He has produced “just” 3 home runs since joining the Mets which would extrapolate to around 8-12 for the season. After hitting 21 across two levels of the minors in 2018, you would have anticipated just a tad more pop from the second basemen. It is not just the lack of home runs that is concerning but the lack of exit velocity. So far his average exit velocity is 85.7 MPH which ranks 293rd of 354 players with at least 120 BBE (batted ball events). McNeil’s exit velocity is not trending in the right direction either.
As you can tell from the graph, it has been a downward climb for McNeil’s exit velocity. From an average exit velocity of around 88.2/87.8 MPH for Fastball/Offspeed pitches and 90.9 MPH for breaking then down to an ugly 83.9/82.6/78.4 for Offspeed/Breaking/Fastball respectively in September. Along with the lack of hard contact, McNeil has seen his hard hit rate fall to 13.2% in September. His degrading exit velocity is certainly something I will be keeping a close eye on as we move into the last few weeks of the season. While we have seen some speedsters have success with a low exit velocity, his sprint speed doesn’t blow you away, hovering around league average. If he ever wants to channel that pop he showed this season in the minors we need to see him hit the ball with more authority.
McNeil is not a hulking figure like Aaron Judge, and he doesn’t have the speed of Billy Hamilton but the rookie does bring with him an incredible feel at the plate. Among players with at least 170 plate appearances, McNeil maintains the 4th lowest K-rate at 9%, just behind Michael Brantley. His Z-swing % (Swing on pitches inside the zone/total pitches inside the zone) is second to only Freddie Freeman (not bad company). His Contact rate is 29th in the MLB, and his O-Contact% is 17th among all hitters with 17o plate appearances. To be among the leaders in plate disciple in his first taste of major league baseball is incredibly impressive.
Just to add to the impressive plate disciple, the rookie has made his money versus breaking and off speed pitches, which is atypical for a rookie.
As you can tell McNeil is no “slouch” versus fastballs but he is currently producing a .400+ AVG/ .600+ SLG/.450 wOBA versus breaking and offspeed pitches. This is incredibly impressive when you factor in his is still mantaining a K-rate below 8% on each pitch. There is a bit of danger that needs to be addressed and that is the xStats. As you can see from the above image, it does show that McNeil is pretty dramatically outperforming his expected stats.
Another positive that the 26-year-old has displayed since getting the call-up is passable defense. After being labeled by many as a poor defensive player, and even kept down in the minors due to his limited defensive ability, McNeil has played a passable second base and even grades positively on defensive WAR. Keep in mind, we are looking at an extremely small sample size, and defensive metrics take over a year to stabilize. Still, it is an early positive sign for the Mets future second basemen.
McNeil has gotten numerous player comps to pre-playoff breakout Daniel Murphy, and I think it’s dead-on. They both have very similar contact rates, and the ability to sneak a stolen base. Typically when scouting for breakout type player I like to bet on guys who possess a solid foundation. Players with good contact skills, and good plate discipline. Pre- breakout Jose Ramirez comes to mind who before his recent power surge in the last two year was a player who could steal 10-20 bags, keep his K-rate below 15% while maintaining an elite Z-contact rate. McNeil has shown flashes of power this season in the minors, and he has displayed that foundation that I love to look for in breakout guys. If all goes right next year, we could potentially be looking at a fantasy middle infielder with a ceiling of 30 HR + SB who comes with great batting average/ on-base skills who “should” come cheap.