First-pitch swinging works wonders for McNeil

March 5th, 2020

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Perhaps the baseball world should have seen this coming. Late at night on July 24, 2018, approached home plate for the first time as a big leaguer. He swung at the first pitch he saw, lining it into center field for a single.

A career was born that day, if not yet a reputation. McNeil came to the plate 248 times his rookie season, swinging at the first pitch 110 times -- a rate of 44.4 percent, good for 14th in the Majors. A year later, McNeil increased that rate to 50.7 percent, making him the league’s only hitter to swing at the first pitch more often than not. Apparently, not even that was enough to deter pitchers from throwing strike one to him. As the season wore on, McNeil began swinging at the first pitch with increasing frequency, doing so 55.9 percent of the time last September.

It’s a habit that has continued this spring. Not only did McNeil swing at the first pitch he saw in Grapefruit League action last month, but he has done so at least once in nearly every game since. Fastballs, changeups, curveballs -- it hasn’t mattered. McNeil entered play Thursday ranked second in the Majors with 10 spring hits, good for a .556 average.

“I’ll keep hacking,” McNeil said. “I’ll still walk if they’re going to walk me, but yeah, if I get a good pitch early in the count, I’m going to try to do some damage.”

The habit is one McNeil has had since childhood. That aggression at the plate? It’s natural.

“There are so many things that are just natural about him,” Mets hitting coach Chili Davis said. “He’s a natural ballplayer. Those are the kinds of guys that -- they’re here, they’re in the game, but I don’t think you see as many of them anymore because they’re being coached a certain way from Little League on up.”

Like most hitters, McNeil indeed spent his formative years pushing back against coaches that wanted him to see more pitches. Under the Mets’ previous front-office regime, the organization implemented a policy at the lower levels of the Minors requiring randomly selected hitters to take a strike in each of their at-bats. The idea was to help young hitters learn the strike zone.

For some, it worked. But for McNeil, it was an annoyance. He recalled frequently working his way into 1-0 or 2-0 counts, only to watch a fastball whiz by right down the middle. It was not until McNeil reached Double-A that the Mets freed him (and others) to swing as he saw fit. Perhaps not surprisingly, McNeil fared better at those levels than in Class A ball, batting .320 at Double-A and Triple-A.

“You only get three strikes,” McNeil said. “I don’t want to give the pitcher one. I know I’m good enough that if it’s in the strike zone, I can usually put a pretty good swing on it and get a hit. So yeah, you only get three strikes I guess, so why waste one?”

It is a strategy that works for McNeil in part because of his strike-zone judgment, but mostly because of his elite bat-to-ball skill. McNeil was one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball at chasing pitches outside the zone last season, doing so roughly 40 percent of the time. He was also one of the best at hitting those pitches, either putting them in play or fouling them off more than two-thirds of the time.

“He’s a very high-contact guy, so when he’s swinging at balls, he’s usually putting them in play,” said teammate Brandon Nimmo, one of the league’s most patient hitters. “So for him, when you give him a first pitch that’s right down the middle, there’s a good chance he’s going to hit it hard. I know we don’t have any problem with him going after that first pitch if they’re going to lay it in there.”

Pitchers have caught on, frequently throwing McNeil first-pitch breaking balls and changeups, but the third baseman hits those, too -- at this point, he says, he’s come to expect them. Davis quipped that if McNeil is aware of the scouting report against him, he certainly doesn’t care about it.

Asked if he plans to lead the league in first-pitch swinging for a second straight season, McNeil just laughed.

“No,” he said. “I’ll lead the league in hitting. I’ll try to do that. That’s a goal.”