Jeff McNeil continues to provide elevated BABIP

Last year, eight players drew votes in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, including Jeff McNeil, who was one of three players to draw a third place vote and receive one point in the balloting. Ronald Acuna Jr. won in a landslide, getting 27 of the 30 first-place votes. Juan Soto picked up two votes for first place and finished second overall and Walker Buehler grabbed the remaining first-place vote and finished in third place.

Five of the eight players to receive votes were hitters. Let’s look at some numbers last year from that quintet, which also included Brian Anderson and Harrison Bader:

Player Age fWAR PA BABIP
Acuna 20 3.7 487 .352
Soto 19 3.7 494 .338
Anderson 25 3.4 670 .332
Bader 24 3.5 427 .358
McNeil 26 2.7 248 .359

McNeil stands out in a way with the numbers posted in that chart – and not in the way that you would want. He was the oldest player of the group, had the fewest PA and fWAR and had the highest BABIP of the batch. But two of those four were just barely the worst. He’s only a year older than Anderson and his BABIP was just .001 higher than Bader’s and .007 higher than Acuna’s. And of course, playing time and fWAR are related. McNeil had the second-highest fWAR among all players last year with fewer than 345 PA, trailing only Adalberto Mondesi.

But it’s hard not to notice how each club treated their rookies in the offseason. Acuna and Soto are batting cleanup for their team, with Soto getting a lucrative long-term deal. After splitting time between third base and the outfield in 2018, Anderson has settled in at the hot corner and found a home in the second spot in the lineup. And after a trade-deadline deal last season of Tommy Pham, Bader has become the Cardinals starting center fielder.

Meanwhile, after making 52 of his 53 starts at second base last year, the Mets went out and actively traded for a 36 year old 2B with five years and $120 million on his contract. And while it looked like maybe McNeil would move over to 3B, the club went out and signed a 35 year old to a two-year deal. The Mets told their rookie to grab an outfielder’s glove and battle for playing time at a position he hadn’t played since college.

Then the 35 year old offseason acquisition got hurt and McNeil found himself back in the mix at third base. Which may be a blessing, because his work in the outfield in both Spring Training and the regular season looked pretty bad, especially going back on balls. Be that as it may, the end result is that he’s received fairly regular playing time here at the beginning of the season. Let’s run the same chart again, this time for 2019 stats and eliminating age and incorporating walk and strikeout rates:

Player fWAR PA BABIP K% BB%
Acuna 0.9 62 .303 19.4 14.5
Soto 0.2 58 .333 27.6 17.2
Anderson 0.1 59 .306 25.4 11.9
Bader 0.3 50 .217 28.0 16.0
McNeil 0.5 50 .421 12.0 6.0

Once again McNeil stands out, this time for his super elevated BABIP. In the 21st Century, only two of the 2,861 batters with enough PA to qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboards finished the year with a .400 BABIP – 2002 Jose Hernandez with a .404 mark and 2000 Manny Ramirez with a .403 average in the category. It’s extremely safe to say that McNeil won’t finish with a BABIP remotely close to what he has now if he plays a full season.

But while a .300 BABIP is normal for the league it doesn’t necessarily make it normal for the player. David Wright in 6,872 lifetime PA finished with a .339 BABIP and from 2005-2009 posted these rates: .340, .344, .356, .321 and .394 in that cursed year of ’09. You may think it’s sacrilegious to compare any Mets player to Wright but looking at all of MLB, we see 238 individual seasons where a player posted a BABIP of .350 or higher this century. Still only a fraction of our sample – a little over 8% – but at least we’ve gone from “virtually impossible” to “unlikely.”

Unfortunately, BABIP is a stat that takes an incredibly long period of time to “stabilize,” which is where it reaches a point where its “signal to noise” crosses the halfway point. Russell Carleton, before he joined the Mets front office, determined that you needed 820 balls in play for BABIP to reach an R of .7 – what we typically call the “stabilization” point, even if that term makes Mr. Carleton uneasy.

In his major league career to date, McNeil has a .369 BABIP but only 236 balls in play.

The only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that it’s still too early to consider that McNeil has elite BABIP skills. But it’s at least interesting that in the microscopic sample of 2019 that McNeil is continuing, even bettering, the mark he displayed in his small sample of 2018. Meanwhile, three of our other four rookies from last year have seen their BABIP drop off noticeably here in the early going, with only Soto, .338 in ’18 compared to .333 today, duplicating his big season.

While acknowledging that we are dealing with a too small sample size, one other thing we can check is McNeil’s xBABIP. The “x” stats are an attempt to use batted ball data to show what a player’s stats “should” be given his profile, the expected numbers, or x. There are several different versions of xBABIP numbers out there. Here, let’s use Mike Podhorzer’s calculation, both because he’s a friend and also because he has a handy-dandy calculator to use. From his career to date – and making some estimates because we’re combining two different seasons, we get McNeil with an xBABIP of .347 compared to his actual .369 mark. So, no doubt that McNeil has been fortunate, but the hitter he’s been to date has been one that should run an ultra-high BABIP.

Many people discounted McNeil last year because of his age and his elevated BABIP. But he’s not that old and he’s continuing to hit whenever given the chance. His ability to hit the ball to all fields and to make excellent contact are good signs that perhaps he can be one of those guys, like Wright, who consistently run a high BABIP. The only way we’ll know for sure is to see him do it over a longer stretch of time. Here’s hoping the Mets continue to give him that opportunity.

7 comments for “Jeff McNeil continues to provide elevated BABIP

  1. John Fox
    April 14, 2019 at 11:57 am

    I’d say there’s a good chance we’ll have another Met drawing a lot of Rookie of the Year votes after this season, maybe all of the 1st place votes.

  2. TJ
    April 14, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    Brian,
    Nice job. I know it is very tempting to discount McNeil’s performance based on age and the expectation of his BABIP to return to the mean, which will certainly happen to some degree. While there is a ton of data to determine aging of MLB skills, McNeil missed substantial time due to some health-related injuries, so similar to deGrom, perhaps he isn’t as “old” as his birthday. More interesting, though, is his bat on ball skill, which is very old school but is playing well. As the data shows, the top level hitters that hit the ball hard when they hit is seem to have higher BABIPs. Is there a statistic that shows the ratio between exit velo and BABIP? Is that the basis for xBABIP? With nothing more than the eye test on TV, McNeil certainly looks like he has great hand/eye skills and can consistently be a guy that is tough to defend. It is going to be super interesting to see how the roster and playing time pans out when Frazier and Lowrie are healthy. I can’t see the team carrying both of those guys given what the younger players have shown. Mr. Frazier may need to move back across town into thumbs down territory.

    • April 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm

      Unaware of any studies between exit velocity and BABIP, I did a quick Google search, which turned up a Community post on FG.

      “At first, I looked at the relationship between BABIP and exit velocity by performing a linear regression between the two. Here is the result:

      BABIPtovelocity

      No relationship, at all. R-squared of 0.03.”

      https://community.fangraphs.com/is-exit-velocity-important/

      With Mike Podhorzer’s xBABIP calculation, he incorporates shift data, hard hit%, LD%, FB%, IFFB% and a speed component.

  3. NYM6986
    April 14, 2019 at 6:13 pm

    Plenty of room to get McNeil playing time and if he continues to rake they can move Lowrie in the off season. Would be nice having a 26 year old on the rise versus a 35 year old who may have had a career year last year. As far as Cano, he will hit for us, anchor the infield, make Rosario better and without him we don’t get elite closer Diaz, who is under team control for four years. If they sign kimbrel for 3 years and $39 million they can move Lugo into the rotation and send Vargas to Syracuse. They have a lot of money coming off the books in the next few years. Got to feel good about this team.

  4. Eraff
    April 14, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    I’d like to leave Lugo and Gsell in the Pen…they appear to be able to contribute and succeed there.

    No sure how fast one of their Minor Leaguers can get to the bigs, but this is probably an addition from outside, if and when needed…..that might be soon.

  5. April 14, 2019 at 7:13 pm

    Is there a working theory for BABIP? Is the lack of correlation with velocity a Contact by Contact/Hit-no Hit Measure, or is it a measurement of “Average exit velocity” versus Batting Average?

    I have a “Unified Theory of Offense” that I would offer for all sports….making defenses accountable for more space increases offensive success. If the direction of a batted ball is less predictable, that leaves the defense defending wider space. If the distance of a batted ball is also less predictable, defenses need to cover more space in front and behind. This is baseball’s version of Spreading the Defense….. and it fits with my own Unified Theory of Offense across every sport that involves “offense and Defense”…. Football, Basketball, Ping Pong, Hockey, etc, etc………. Making the defense accountable for all possible space increases your chances for offensive success.

    • April 14, 2019 at 11:47 pm

      I have no idea what your specific questions are asking.

      Perhaps one thing to keep in mind is that the hardest hit balls frequently go for homers, which eliminates them from BABIP consideration. Another thing to keep in mind is that it all depends on how you group the velocities. Hard% on FG is a proprietary stat from BIS that we don’t know exactly how it’s calculated but rumor has it that it’s pretty close to anything hit 95 mph and above. Maybe the rates for balls with an EV of 95-99 are different from those 110+. And there are likely many more hit at the lower end of the Hard%

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