Jeff McNeil came up to the Mets last July 24 and immediately began doing what he has done since he started in Rookie level in 2013. McNeil hit. In this home run time in baseball, he sprayed line drives all over the field and by the end of the season
Jeff McNeil came up to the Mets last July 24 and immediately began doing what he has done since he started in Rookie level in 2013. McNeil hit. In this home run time in baseball, he sprayed line drives all over the field and by the end of the season he had hit .329 for the Mets. It should have surprised no one. He had hit .329 all the way back in Kingsport. He had hit .300 pretty much everywhere. He is the best hitter for average in baseball right now that nobody talks very much about, at least outside New York.
Since the day McNeil got into the lineup with the Mets last July, there is one player with more than 200 at-bats who has a higher average than McNeil’s .349. That player is Christian Yelich, the reigning MVP of the National League. Yelich is nine points higher, at .359. That is how good McNeil -- who can play left field as well as third base and second -- has been since his debut. He is a throwback contact hitter out of the past. Once he got into the Mets’ lineup, nobody could get him out. More than two weeks into April, and after a couple more hits against the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon, McNeil is hitting .424.
The least surprised person in the ballpark about all this seems to be McNeil himself. He’s not arrogant. He just knows what he can do, mostly because he’s been doing it since he signed his first professional contract. He works the count. He hits the ball where it’s pitched. And keeps hitting.
“Every level of the Minor Leagues, I’ve hit the ball hard,” McNeil said on Thursday in Philadelphia, after the Mets had left the bases loaded in the ninth in a 3-2 loss to the Phillies. “When I got here, nothing changed.”
Before McNeil got with the big club after the All-Star break, he hit .327 for Double-A Binghamton and .368 for Triple-A Las Vegas. He comes out of Nipomo, Calif., and Long Beach State, and he turned 27 a week and a half ago. And somehow, even with that left-handed, line-drive swing, McNeil has never been treated like a phenom. But he made Mets fans pay attention, almost right away. In a lost season when the Mets seemed to stop hitting for months after an 11-1 start, McNeil came up the Minor Leagues and was on first base every time you looked up.
“It was a great feeling,” McNeil said Wednesday, “just to know what I had been doing in the Minor Leagues had translated here. From the start, I felt like I was getting consistently good at-bats. And hitting the ball hard.”
McNeil did that. It seemed like he did it just about every day. He had 225 at-bats over the 63 games for the Mets last season. He had 11 doubles and an OPS of .852 and an on-base percentage of .381. One of these seasons he is going to win a batting championship. Maybe this season. In the history of the Mets, all the way back to Casey Stengel and 1962, the only Met to ever win a batting championship was Jose Reyes eight years ago.
McNeil was asked on Wednesday what it was like to get to Spring Training after hitting the way he had last season and not knowing where he was going to play.
“I had a pretty good idea I was going to end up in the outfield,” McNeil said, “and then play some third [after Todd Frazier got hurt in the spring] and even second [when Robinson Cano would be given a rest]. I just told myself that if I just kept getting consistently good at-bats, I was going to get my playing time.”
McNeil struck out 24 times in those 225 at-bats last season. He has struck out just six times in his first 59 at-bats this season. In this time of hit-or-miss free swinging -- when everybody except the batboy seems to be swinging for the fences -- McNeil strikes out about once every nine at-bats. Among players with 300 plate appearances over the last calendar year, he is one of just six players striking out in fewer than 10 percent of his plate appearances. He really does seem to have come to this time from another time. He goes from left field to third base. He bats eighth sometimes. On Wednesday he batted leadoff. And had himself another 2-for-4.
I wanted to know from him what it has been like to do this for the Mets the way he really has done in in Kingsport and St. Lucie and Binghamton and Vegas.
“It’s been awesome,” McNeil said. “It’s just been a lot of fun. Now we’ve got to make the playoffs and make this an amazing season for everybody.”
They still call them the Amazin’ Mets, even when they’re not. They’ve got a big bat in young Pete Alonso at first base. Michael Conforto hit his fifth home run on Wednesday and has a pretty snappy batting average of .324 himself. So it’s still amazingly easy for McNeil to get lost sometimes. He doesn’t seem to mind. He just keeps hitting. The guy is right. Where he is doesn’t matter, or which position he plays. Just who he is.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.