Your intrepid columnist was at the Mets/Braves game this past Saturday. It was a terrific 3-0, five-hit shutout twirled by Zack Wheeler and friends, probably the most fun at Citi Field since Opening Day. Amid all the hoopla surrounding Wheeler’s mound performance, it took a little nudging to realize, “Hey! Jeff McNeil went four-for-four.” In so doing, he raised his batting average from .190 to .320. He got another hit on Sunday, then went three-for-four on Monday, bringing him up to .364. In the last two games, he’s gone oh-for-seven, dropping him to an even .300.
Who is this guy?
McNeil is one of those classic “under-the-radar” players. He was a twelfth round draft pick out of Long Beach State in 2013. He did what you would expect a college player to do in the low minors: outhit his younger competition. At every advancement, there would be a stumble, followed by an adjustment to the better pitching. He sustained an injury in 2016, limiting him to two starts at second base and one at third and only 12 at bats for AA Binghamton. He had to backtrack to high-A Port St. Lucie to start 2017 – where again, old for his League, he tore the cover off the ball — then jumped up to AAA Las Vegas where he didn’t really show anything special offensively. In Las Vegas. Think about it. He started this year back in Binghamton, but a funny thing happened. When he was promoted to Las Vegas this time, he kept on hitting. His OPS in AA in 2018 was 1.029. In AAA, it was 1.027. With the big team struggling, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would be called to the Majors. He was, on July 24.
OK, so those are the numbers. What about the eye test? From here, he’s got a nice swing. He doesn’t walk much – just five times in fifty plate appearances — so his OBP & OPS are going to be hit driven. On defense, he can be called “average,” but he doesn’t seem to have a terribly strong arm: not a huge drawback for a second baseman, though it hampers his abilities in the pivot on double plays. One is reminded of a young Daniel Murphy: a fairly polished hitter without a real position at the outset. Ten years ago, Murphy made his debut, zooming in seemingly out of nowhere, to contribute to an ultimately futile stretch drive. He was a pup of 23 at the time and had no position, so manager Jerry Manuel stuck him in left field. Eventually, he would find his way to second base, of course, but it was clear he was around for his bat. McNeil might be in a similar situation: second baseman by default. He is also arriving in the majors at age 26, a little long in the tooth for an impact rookie. Really, it’s still early; we may not know what we have here until next spring.
We’ll just have to try and notice him a little better.
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