Why there’s no defense that can stop this Met

January 13th, 2023

This story was excerpted from the Mets Beat newsletter, this week written by Mike Petriello. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In ’s first three seasons, he had a 139 OPS+, well above the Major League average of 100. In 2022 he had a nearly identical 140 OPS+, which gives you confidence that you can ignore his disappointing 2021 (87 OPS+) and expect similar production going forward.

That might yet be true, except baseball as you know it won’t look the same going forward, will it? Thanks to a handful of new rule changes like the pitch clock, larger bases, a limit on pickoffs and a partial ban on infield shifts, hitters and pitchers alike are going to need to adjust. So how, for example, might the new positioning rules affect McNeil, one of the best bat-control artists in the sport, coming off a year when his .326 average led the Majors?

It’s going to be one of the more fascinating subplots of the season, because McNeil isn’t the typical slow-footed, pull-heavy, powerful lefty who is normally shifted against, and he had the fifth-most opposite or up-the-middle singles in baseball in 2022. In theory, putting a limit on the way that teams can defend against him should only help his case, opening room on the right side.

But on the other hand, McNeil just destroyed the shift, didn’t he? McNeil’s .426 Batting Average on Balls in Play (i.e., batting average without homers, so just looking at in-play balls the defense can try to get to) was not only the highest in the Majors, it was well higher than his still-good .323 against standard infield defenses, which he saw nearly 80 percent of the time. 

McNeil’s skill at beating the shift became so celebrated that when he would roll opposite-field hits against it, it became harder to believe why opponents would even bother. “It just kind of makes you wonder why they keep doing it, that’s just him playing pepper there,” marveled the SNY broadcast after one such hit against the Braves in early May. Later in the month, it was the same: “How many times does he have to do it before they make the adjustment?” asked Gary Cohen.

Now the league has made the adjustment for the teams. But the tradeoff between “more space on the right side” (via the ban on three-infielder setups) and “less space on the left side” (because now two fielders are mandated to be there, when often it was just one) provides for a very interesting strategic approach question, and a recent Statcast analysis suggested that applying McNeil’s 2022 batted balls to 2023 rules wouldn’t necessarily add hits, given that he was so much better against the shift in the first place.

McNeil, however, will adjust. We know that some lefty batters won’t care, being unwilling or unable to worry about the defense, instead just hitting the ball as hard as they can and letting the chips fall where they may. That’s not his game. How he attempts to change things up to attack the new defense -- or if he ends up missing the shift -- will be a fun project to watch in 2023.