John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
On July 6 last season, Jeff McNeil went 4-for-5 against the Phillies, lining four singles through or over the infield, into left, center, and right. At that point he was hitting .356 for the season, looking like a young Wade Boggs.
Or Tony Gwynn. Or even Pete Rose. Indeed, to scouts of a certain age who cringe at the number of strikeouts in today's game, McNeil was a throwback to an era when hitters prioritized contact over power.
"He was my new favorite hitter," one long-time scout recalled by phone on Monday. "I loved the way he choked up on that bat with the fat handle and hit the ball where it was pitched. Around the All-Star break I remember thinking he was going to hit somewhere between .340 and .350 and win the batting title.
"All he wanted to do was hit ropes. And then somebody got to him."
The scout laughed at his own little joke, referring to McNeil's second half last season, when the Mets' super-utility man went from hitting ropes to hitting bombs.
In fact, McNeil hit 16 home runs in 57 games after the All-Star break -- a 40-plus pace over a full season -- compared to seven in 76 games during the first half of the season.
The power surge came with a price, however, as he hit for a .278 average over those final 57 games, and his season average fell to .318, good for fourth in the National League.
On the other hand, McNeil hit for a higher slugging percentage -- .561 vs. .509 -- and as a result, his second-half OPS of .914 was nearly identical to his .917 in the first half.
All of which raises intriguing questions:
1) Which McNeil is more valuable to the Mets, especially as a leadoff hitter -- the guy who hit .349 in the first half with a .409 on-base percentage, or the one hitting more home runs in the second half but getting on base at a .353 percentage?
2) Does the power have to come at the expense of a high average, or is it possible that McNeil can follow the lead of Daniel Murphy, the former Met who morphed into an MVP-level player for a couple of seasons by turning from contact hitter into more of a slugger, starting rather famously with his 2015 postseason?
The difference, at least for the moment, is that the changes Murphy made to add power -- moving closer to the plate and trying to pull more balls in the air -- also turned him into a better average hitter. He hit .347 and .322 in his first two seasons with the Nationals, in addition to putting up career-high home run totals of 25 and 23, respectively, before a knee injury -- and age -- seemed to begin taking a toll the last couple of years.
In McNeil's case, meanwhile, scouts say the jury is out on whether he can combine the styles as successfully as Murphy.
"He definitely got a little pull-happy in the second half," says the scout who loved McNeil the .350 hitter. "He started pulling more balls on the ground for outs, on pitches that he had been willing to wait on and shoot the other way in the first half.
"It happens. He starts seeing that he can hit the ball over the fence and it's only natural to fall in love with that, and you start selling out, even if it's just a little bit, for some of that power by trying to get the head of the bat out early on the fastball.
"But I do think he'll grow from that. He might be able to do what Murphy did. He's got the quick hands the elite hand-eye coordination to do it. I don't know if he'll be that .350 guy but he might be able to hit .330 with 30-plus home runs.
"Some of that depends on the baseball, though. I think everybody is waiting to see if it's flying as far as it did last year. If it's not then it might make more sense for McNeil to go back to hitting line drives all over the ballpark."
Two other scouts I talked to about McNeil also raised the issue of last year's juiced ball, saying they need to reserve judgement, at least to some degree.
"There's no doubt he's a gifted hitter," one of other scouts said. "But it became very hard at times last year to evaluate what was real and what wasn't because everybody was hitting the ball out of the ballpark.
"I saw McNeil hit some long home runs so he's got pop, but if some of those balls are staying in the park, what does that do to his overall numbers? Is he better off waiting on the ball longer and using the opposite field, hitting a lot of singles and doubles than trying to drive the ball out of the park?
"He's going to be a really interesting guy to watch."
With that in mind, it's worth noting that McNeil hit more home runs than doubles in the second half, 16 to 15, after hitting 23 doubles to his seven home runs in the first half.
So we'll see. Perhaps the baseball will be a factor, but either way it will be fascinating to see where McNeil takes his game in 2020, especially considering that 2019 was only his first full season in the big leagues.
As the long-time scout who prefers the high-average McNeil to the slugging McNeil said, "Wherever he goes in terms of his style, he's already one of the better hitters in baseball. It's just a matter of which way is best for him."