Jeff McNeil came into this season with a lot to prove, but that was nothing new for the 30-year-old. Once a lanky kid who was drafted out Long Beach State in the 12th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, McNeil only possessed a single tool when he began his professional career. He could hit.
McNeil did not have a set position in the field, didn’t have a ton of power or speed, but what he did have was an innate ability to get hits with exceptional bat-to-ball skills.
Never considered a top prospect, McNeil spent seven years in the minor league before finally earning his shot at the end of a terrible season for the Mets in 2018.
As a rookie, McNeil was one of the lone bright spots for the Mets, hitting .329/.381/.471, across his first 63 games played. He ended up finishing sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting and looked like the second baseman of the future for the Mets. Yet in the offseason, new GM Brodie Van Wagenen replaced him twice over, trading for Robinson Cano while also signing free agent Jed Lowrie.
Counted out again, McNeil went into camp to win a spot on the Opening Day roster by proving he could be a versatile bench player that could complement a veteran roster. Having played a total of 10 games and 61 innings in the outfield across his minor league career, McNeil took to the grass and showcased an ability to play all over the diamond for the Mets.
McNeil’s versatility got him back on the field, but it was his bat that kept him there. In 2019, McNeil put together the first All-Star campaign of his career, hitting .318/.384/.531, with a 144 wRC+ that happened to be identical to teammate Pete Alonso, who hit 53 home runs that season.
In the 2020 campaign, McNeil continued to rake, hitting .311/.383/.454 across 52 games played. Entering 2021, McNeil was a career .319 hitter, who was beginning to be considered as one of the best in the game. Then he put together the worst season of his professional career.
Whether it was the pressure of playing on a first place club, a change in hitting philosophy or a contentious relationship with new teammate Francisco Lindor, 2021 was a lost season for McNeil. He put together a paltry .251/.319/.360 slash line, with a 92 wRC+. Many began to wonder if McNeil really was one of the game’s best hitters or if he was just a flash in the pan.
The Mets did not give up on McNeil, choosing to let Lindor’s great friend Javier Baez walk in free agency, while betting on their homegrown All-Star to return to form at second base. Lindor and McNeil had to put aside any beef from 2021, to work together in forming what became the best double play combination in baseball.
Best Double Play Combo in Baseball
The Mets just completed the second-best regular season in franchise history, winning 101 games. That marked a 24-win improvement from last season and a large reason for that was the return to form from the Mets two star players up the middle.
Francisco Lindor’s first season in Queens wasn’t nearly as bad as McNeil 2021 campaign, but it was probably a bigger fall from grace from a guy who was just paid like he was the best shortstop in baseball. Lindor posted the worst season of his career, albeit one where he still posted a 4.2 fWAR.
This year, Lindor once again proved his status as the game’s best shortstop by leading his position with his 6.8 fWAR. Meanwhile McNeil posted the third-best fWAR (5.9) among second baseman in baseball and the best mark among those from the National League.
Combined, Lindor and McNeil were worth close to 13 wins for the Mets this season. They combined to score 171 runs, with 169 RBIs between them. Defensively, each finished among the top-five percent of fielders when it comes to OAA, posting 20 OAA between them up the middle.
Where McNeil distinguishes himself among the other great defenders in the league though, is his ability to play multiple positions, unlocking endless lineup combinations for Buck Showalter.
McNeil started 95 games at second base this season, but also received 44 starts in the outfield (33 in LF, 11 in RF), posting positive defensive grades wherever the Mets put him. McNeil should be the favorite to win the new utility man Gold Glove award this offseason, adding to a long list of accolades he is set to acquire.
Batting Title Cements Comeback Player of the Year
Jeff McNeil’s year-to-year jump in numbers are staggering based on how poor he performed during the 2021 campaign. McNeil raised his batting average 75 points, going from being a .251 hitter in 2021, to an MLB-leading .326 hitter in 2022.
His on-base percentage jumped over 70 points, while his slugging percentage was nearly 100 points better. He went from hitting for extra-bases just 27 times last year, to hitting 39 doubles with nine home runs in 2022 and McNeil improved his fWAR by over four and half wins.
He already should have been considered for the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award based on those numbers alone, but becoming the batting champ should cement it.
On August 12th, McNeil had to exit a game against the Philadelphia Phillies with an injured finger. At the time he was hitting .306 on the season, trailing Paul Goldschmidt by 25 points in the batting title race and Freddie Freeman by 18.
McNeil did not miss a game after the finger injury, instead opting to play through it, just like teammate Lindor had done earlier in the season. Across his final 19 games playing with the banged up finger in August, McNeil led the league hitting .377. He was forced to change his swing due to an inability to drive the baseball with the injury, where he peppered the ball all around the diamond to continue to rack up hits.
This ended up playing to McNeil’s strengths more than anything else and put him squarely back in the race to win a batting title. He entered the final month of the season with a .318 average that trailed Freeman by just seven points and Goldschmidt by 14.
Fast-forward to September 21st and it looked like Freeman was going to run away with what would have been the first batting title of his illustrious career. Freeman had passed up Goldschmidt and was hitting .330, while McNeil remained third at .314.
With 10 games left to play, McNeil was a longshot to win the batting title, but luckily he had one last hot streak in him that would propel him ahead of Freeman to lead all of baseball in batting.
Beginning with a series played in Oakland, McNeil started a hitting streak with a three-hit day on September 23rd. This was the first of eight multi-hit game by McNeil to close out the season.
Over his final 46 plate appearances, McNeil went 20-for-43 with three walks. That was good for a .465/.500/.651 slash line, which added 12 points to his season average, finishing a point ahead of Freeman for the title.
McNeil has always coveted a batting title, as it is the one award he is naturally able to contend for with his skill-set. To reach that career benchmark after the year he had in 2021 is a remarkable achievement and one that surely means the world to McNeil.
Now the Mets move on to bigger things with the playoffs set to begin tomorrow. But in a season full of great stories for this ballclub, none might be better than the redemption story of Jeff McNeil.