Jeff McNeil entered Wednesday hitting .418 (23-for-55) with five doubles, one triple, 10 RBI and a .484 on-base percentage, which was second-best in the National League and fourth-best in all of baseball. He notched two more hits on Wednesday, raising his triiple slash to .424/.485/.542.
"He's still still mostly under people's radars," a former MLB scout, now advisor to an NL team, told me earlier Wednesday. "Based on what he did last year, if he keeps this up, he won't be a secret for long."
In McNeil, I see a 27-year-old, old-school hitter with a unique story and unique bat that is destined to win multiple batting titles, the first of which could realistically happen this season.
McNeil is not a fluke. His low strikeout and walk rate in the minor leagues foreshadowed a big-league hitter with incredible contact skills. It would be easy to dismiss his past as just strong minor-league skills, but he continued these same rates when called up to the Mets last summer -- and he's continued to display them again this season.
In fact, entering play Wednesday, McNeil's 9.7 strikeout rate was exactly the same number he ended with in 2018, which is probably random but nevertheless amazing.
The point is, the dude can hit, he's going to hit and -- given the amount of times he is going to put the ball in play -- it's hard to imagine how he doesn't hit at least .300.
As for winning a batting title, Brewers OF Christian Yelich won it in the National League last season when batting .328. To qualify for the title, a batter must have at least 502 plate appearances. McNeil, who didn't make his 2018 debut until late July, ended last season with just 248. In those at-bats, though, he hit .329, which was actually one point better than Yelich.
McNeil was never listed as a top prospect, mostly because he missed large chunks of time in 2016 and 2017 with a quad injury and surgery for a hernia and hip labrum injury. As a result, he spent his rehab working to increase strength and mobility from the lower half of his body. He returned the following spring 15 pounds heavier, getting more torque from his hips and showing added backspin when making contact, which resulted in more hard-hit line drives and fly balls that landed for home runs.
In addition to his new-found drive, he continues to show amazing restraint on pitches thrown to him out of the strike zone. And, at the very least, he will foul them off, which was far more common in hitters prior to the late 90s.
In fact, though McNeil's career numbers (albeit a small sample size) are currently comparable to Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn, when comparing him to hitters of the late 80s, early 90s, McNeil looks more like Don Mattingly.
Similar to "Donnie Baseball," McNeil reaches with his front toe, he leads with the knob of his bat, his head never moves, he uses a similar straight-line transfer from the hips, he swings top palm up and finishes with both hands on the bat, wrapping it around his shoulder.
"He's a natural hitter," Mets hitting coach Chili Davis recently told the Daily News.
His stats, instincts, and swing are impressive. However, more impressive may be his bat, which (when compared to other big-league hitters) is thicker and is missing a knob. He was originally given the bat by a minor-league coordinator during his rehab in 2017. He told me this past spring that the lack of a knob reminds him to choke up with his grip, which helps him quickly get the bat to the ball.
"It just feels right, and I get hits, so I just keep using it," he added, despite past teammates giving it a try and rejecting it after just a few swings. "Roberto Clemente used the same bat," he added. "It worked for him, so why can't it work for me."
In spring training earlier this year, I had individual, quick conversations about McNeil with Pete Alonso, Todd Frazier, Brandon Nimmo and manager Mickey Callaway, and all four essentially said the same thing -- "He rakes." They literally all used the same term, while smiling and seemingly in awe of his ability to put the ball in play.
"He's a hit machine," Frazier added, which - despite being labeled the Squirrel - struck me as an awesome nickname. Or, at the very least, a pretty cool t-shirt.
Speaking of Frazier, it's possible he cuts in to McNeil's playing time when he soon returns from the Injured List. The same can be said about McNeil and Jed Lowrie, who is expected to soon return as well.
Thankfully for McNeil, he entered this season intending to be used as a left fielder, which is where he should continue to play, while also being available to slot in at second or third base.
"We'll continue to try to get all those guys in there," Callaway said Tuesday when asked about McNeil and others regarding playing time. "We want to win. It's not just about getting guys playing time. ... We want the best players out there at all times. It's going to be a challenge, but we'll get it done."
McNeil is disciplined and technically sound enough to always hit above .300, which means the only thing between him and repeatedly contending for a batting title will be Callaway and GM Brodie Van Wagenen, who control the lineup and McNeil's playing time. Otherwise, pound for pound, swing for swing, McNeil better start making room on his trophy shelf.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!