From 2018-2020 Jeff McNeil hit .319 across 918 at-bats. He sprayed the ball all over the field and appeared as pure a contact hitter the Mets had seen in quite some time. This year, however, the train has derailed; Jeff McNeil is struggling mightily to the tune of .247/.320/.308. That’s a 92 wRC+, well below his previous career low of 130 in 2020. So what happened to him?
He Changed His Approach
These photos (apologies for the quality) are of McNeil’s batting stance and approach on 2 HRs, one in ’19 and one in ’21. In 2019, prior to the pitch being thrown, you can see that he is more upright and balanced than in 2021. He shifted more weight onto his back leg and is more crouched at the plate this year.
The more interesting change is his removal of the leg kick. Timing is everything when hitting. It is perplexing why McNeil would eliminate a leg kick after so much success at the plate early in his career. In 2019 he has a visible leg kick – and when he brings his foot down – he finishes in a closed balanced position. His stance in ’21 has eliminated the leg kick and replaced it with a subtle toe-tap and hip rotation. In ’19 he looks relaxed…hands back, waiting to unload all at once on the pitch. In ’21 it looks like he is rushing out to get it (both pitches were down and in sliders)
There are obviously numerous reasons why a hitter could struggle at the plate. However, McNeil’s change in approach has seemed to throw him off at the plate though. Keith Hernandez has noted that he feels McNeil is flying open, which often leads to weaker contact. The numbers back this claim up: Jeff’s Soft-Contact Rate is 7.8% higher in ’21 than it was during the ’19 season, and his Hard-Contact Rate is down 9.6%.
Quality of Contact is Down
In addition to the aforementioned Hard and Soft-Contact Rates, McNeil is hitting ground balls and infield flies at a higher rate than he has in his entire career. This is worrisome because those are the two least desirable outcomes for a hitter on a ball put in play. These batted balls are the least likely to produce hits. On the other end of the spectrum, McNeil’s line drive rate is down around 3% from his career average. He is simply not producing good outcomes when he comes to the plate as often as he used to.
McNeil’s expected numbers back up his actual numbers suggesting his struggles are not a product of bad luck. His xwOBA (.306) is only 5 points higher than his actual (.301) and his xBA (.241) is 6 points lower than his actual (.247). This year, Jeff’s Hard-Hit Rate, xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, and Barrel Rate all rank in the bottom third of the league or lower. In 2019, when he posted a 143 wRC+, he was in the top half of the league in 3/5 of those statistics.
His 14.2% K-Rate is borderline elite and he is still amongst the top of the league in contact rate. Yet, his 7.3% BB-Rate indicates although he can avoid K’s his plate appearances often result in weak outs anyways.
He Isn’t Punishing in Hitters Counts
Hitters tend to do a lot of their damage in hitters counts, it’s just a fact of the game. If a batter is ahead in the count they are more likely to get a pitch to hit. Thus, they are more likely to hit that pitch with authority.
In 2019 Jeff McNeil absolutely raked ahead in the count. His triple slash on plate appearances that ended with him ahead in the count was .345/.513/.531 (1.044 OPS) a 134 tOPS+. After 2-0, his tOPS+ was 201, and after 3-1, it was 152. In the best counts, he destroyed the baseball and it resulted in a fantastic year. Jeff had a 143 wRC+ and a .384 wOBA in ’19.
McNeils’s numbers ahead in the count in 2021 are almost unfathomably different. His triple slash ahead in the count in ’21: .190/.385/.266 (.651 OPS) a 95 tOPS+. He is performing worse ahead in the count than he has as a whole. This is a dramatic and almost inexplicable shift, but it certainly helps explain his struggles.
Can He Fix it?
Only time will tell if McNeil is able to turn it around, but he appeared to be too good a hitter in his first 3 seasons to struggle this mightily in his 4th. Perhaps he is still recovering from his lingering hamstring injury. Or, perhaps it’s just that hitting a baseball is really really hard, and MLB pitchers have figured him out a bit.
Jeff’s future with the Mets is cloudier than it has been at any point. The Mets recently acquired Javier Báez which uprooted Jeff from second base (again). Although Báez is a pending free agent, it is hard to see the Mets not pursuing him in the offseason after surrendering last year’s first-round pick, Pete Crow-Armstrong, to get him.
It will be interesting to see if McNeil can get it going over the final month of the season – he has had some unreal hot streaks throughout his brief career – and boy could he use one. Maybe he ditches the new stance and goes back to his bread and butter. Whatever the case may be, the Mets could really use the McNeil of old down the stretch.
**Stats as of 08/30/21
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