On the McNeil family ball field, there was no lack of incentive to avoid home runs. Balls that went over the right-field fence tended to land in a stream, forcing the pitcher to navigate the fence and wade through water to retrieve them. Beyond that was a farm, with all the hazards hoofed beasts tend to create.
Ryan McNeil cannot estimate quite how many times he had to hop that fence and ford that stream at the family’s home in Santa Barbara, Calif., a couple hours north of Los Angeles, but he knows there were many. He and his brother, Jeff, played every day after school, taking turns pitching and hitting.
“Jeff’s the most frustrating hitter I’ve ever faced in my career,” Ryan McNeil, a pitcher for six seasons in the Cubs organization, said after driving up to watch his brother play this weekend in San Francisco. “He doesn’t give you an easy at-bat, ever. He’s always up there swinging. He’s always up there battling. That’s the last thing you want to see as a pitcher.”
From those slashing, pesky Wiffle Ball hacks came the seeds of a swing that has Jeff McNeil in contention for a National League batting title. Wednesday is the one-year anniversary of McNeil’s callup to the big leagues. Over that calendar year, he has hit .335, better than everyone in baseball except for reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, and he’s only a hundredth of a point off Yelich’s pace. This season, McNeil leads the Majors with a .339 mark.
Ten weeks are all that separate him from the Mets’ first batting crown since Jose Reyes in 2011.
“I’ve been able to do it for a whole year,” McNeil said. “Hopefully I can do it for a few more months, and we’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year.”
It is the swing that allows McNeil to do what he does. As the left-handed-hitting McNeil sets in the batter’s box, he holds his front leg almost straight, putting the bulk of his weight on his left knee. When the pitch approaches, he lifts his front leg for just a beat, before dropping his shoulder and attacking the ball. Sometimes, he lunges. Sometimes, he slashes. The swings often look defensive, but they carry a certain potency to them, earning him early-career comparisons to Ichiro Suzuki.
As far as McNeil can tell, he’s always had that sort of swing, molded in the backyard in Santa Barbara and perfected over hundreds of games in high school, at Long Beach State and in the Minor Leagues, where McNeil spent six full seasons -- hitting .311 -- before cracking the bigs last summer. At the time, the Mets justified keeping McNeil in the Minors until age 26 because they considered him, in manager Mickey Callaway’s words, “strictly a second baseman.” He has since proven adept at third base, left and right field, posting positive Defensive Runs Saved totals at each position.
But that’s not why McNeil is in the big leagues. That’s not why McNeil was an All-Star.
McNeil was an All-Star because of his unique ability to put bat on ball -- what his brother, Ryan, called “a lost art.” Ten years ago, 42 qualified big leaguers hit at least .300 over a full season. Twenty years ago, 55 players achieved the feat. This year, with home runs and strikeouts rising annually, only 19 players are on pace to make the cut.
“To hit .340, .350, it’s not easy,” said Mets hitting coach Chili Davis. “Pitchers realize that he’s a tough out. Although he doesn’t hit 30 homers, in a lot of situations where you need to put the ball in play, get a hit, he’s a threat.”
For McNeil, that often means trying to punish pitches early in at-bats -- he’s slugging .754 when he swings at the first pitch -- and defending the strike zone late. With two strikes, McNeil shortens his swing as he becomes hell-bent on contact. It’s an effort that results in loads of foul balls: Among the 259 batters to see at least 250 two-strike pitches this season, McNeil is tied for second in percentage of two-strike pitches he fouls away, according to Statcast data. Less than 13 percent of the two-strike pitches he sees strike him out, which is tied for the 17th-lowest rate among the same group.
“It’s impressive that he’s kept it up,” teammate Pete Alonso said, “but I’m not surprised when I see something a little squirrelly.”
While McNeil may not be an outlier in that regard, his ability to rank near the league leaders in contact categories, while still punishing the balls he does put in play, is unique. McNeil is no slap hitter.
Among players with at least 600 plate appearances this century, only 19 have a strikeout rate as low as McNeil’s with an isolated power figure -- slugging percentage minus batting average -- as high as his. The list is topped by Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield and Vladimir Guerrero.
McNeil keeps an eye on the batting average leaderboard, where he has led Yelich by varying degrees since before the All-Star break. The NL has not had a Triple Crown winner since Joe Medwick in 1937 and, while both Yelich and Cody Bellinger have a chance to end that trend, McNeil may be the person to ensure it doesn’t happen. No one in his inner orbit seems to think a batting title is unreachable, or unsustainable.
Like his hitting coach, McNeil does not care for the modern implication that batting average doesn’t matter. A high average, McNeil knows, results in high on-base and slugging numbers, which are more well-regarded by modern analytic thinking. His ability to spoil pitches, and thus avoid strikeouts, makes the skill repeatable. The Mets have bought in by making McNeil their leadoff hitter.
“I’m not surprised I put the ball in play so much,” said McNeil, who has only spent the better part of 27 years perfecting the craft.
In Ryan McNeil’s eyes, six years in the Minors may have helped his brother more than he knows, turning him into a complete hitter before he ever stepped foot in the big leagues. So many thousand other pitches on the Wiffle Ball field played a similar role.
“It makes me feel a little better knowing that he beats other people too,” Ryan McNeil said, laughing. “It’s not just me.”