How Jeff McNeil and other top 2018 rookies fared in 2019

In 2018, Jeff McNeil came to the majors in late July and in 248 PA, he posted an .852 OPS and was one of eight players in the National League to receive votes for Rookie of the Year. It was a top-heavy class, with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto drawing 29 of the 30 first-place votes. Other hitters to draw votes included Brian Anderson and Harrison Bader.

Acuna and Soto were considered building blocks for their teams, while Anderson and Bader were no-doubt starters. And the Mets were so taken by McNeil that they considered his 2018 position of second base a “primary need” to address in the offseason and ended up importing a 36 year old with five years left on his contract.

One of the reasons to doubt McNeil was that he had such great success thanks to a .359 BABIP, which is certainly an elevated mark. But the Braves weren’t so concerned with Acuna’s .352 mark, nor were the Nationals with the .338 that Soto posted. Likely those two teams didn’t fret because Acuna and Soto were top rookie prospects, while McNeil had virtually fallen off the prospect radar thanks to two injury-plagued seasons.

Let’s run a chart with our five hitters to draw ROY votes in 2018, showcasing their numbers in both their rookie and sophomore seasons:

2018       2019      
Acuna 487 .918 .352 3.7 715 .883 .337 5.6
Anderson 670 .757 .332 3.4 520 .810 .305 3.1
Bader 427 .756 .358 3.6 406 .680 .268 1.8
McNeil 248 .852 .359 2.7 567 .915 .337 4.6
Soto 494 .923 .338 3.7 659 .949 .312 4.8

Because of his late start, McNeil had the fewest PA and lowest fWAR of the group in 2018. But this past year, despite opening the season without a set position and also spending some time on the IL, McNeil finished third in both categories, nearly catching Soto in fWAR. He finished second to Soto in OPS and tied Acuna for the highest BABIP.

In 815 PA in the majors now, McNeil has a .344 BABIP. It may be too soon to declare that he should be considered a guy who will consistently top a .300 mark in the category. But there’s more evidence to support this point of view than there was this time a season ago. The fear that he would be unable to duplicate a high BABIP turned out to be untrue in 2019. Rather, it’s the Cardinals who should have had this concern, as Bader fell off by 90 points in the category.

But an interesting thing happened to McNeil in 2019. In his final 41 games of the season, a span of 181 PA, McNeil seemed to change his approach at the plate. He seemed to look to turn on the ball and hit for more power. He had 23 XBH in this span, including 12 HR. His OPS went up, as he recorded a .931 mark in this stretch. But he did this not with an inflated BABIP but rather a .258 mark in the category.

In his first 92 games of the season, McNeil had a .909 OPS and a .370 BABIP.

McNeil began 2018 in Double-A Binghamton and had 33 XBH in 241 PA, which gave him a .299 ISO. He was promoted to Triple-A and continued to hit for both average and power, with a .368/.427/.600 triple slash line before he got the call to the majors. But with the Mets he seemed to willingly sacrifice power for contact. That approach led to a .329 AVG but with only a .142 ISO.

Those who still view AVG as their primary way of rating offensive production are no doubt unhappy with how McNeil finished the season, as he hit just .277 in his closing stretch. It’s tough to post a high average with a low BABIP. But a .295 ISO covers a lot of sins. If McNeil had produced that mark over an entire season, he would have finished fifth in the National League in the category. The top two in ISO spent most of the year vying for the MVP and the third guy is teammate Pete Alonso. Not bad company to keep.

The hope is that McNeil can combine the two approaches a bit more in 2020. The ideal would be going to the plate with the thought of selling out for power and continue that as long as he’s ahead in the count. The end result would hopefully resemble what he did in the minors in two stops in 2018 – a high average and a high ISO.

When Brandon Nimmo returned from the IL in September, he put up a .430 OBP in 93 PA. Amed Rosario posted a .350 OBP over his final 326 PA last year. They give the Mets two options to bat in the leadoff spot, with Nimmo certainly the preferred one. Freed from the need to set the table for other hitters, McNeil should continue his approach from the end of the 2019 season and give the Mets a formidable middle of the order with Alonso and Michael Conforto.

The average NL hitter last year posted a .180 ISO. The Mets could feature a lineup with seven of their eight hitters above that mark, with all seven a possibility to break a .200 mark, too. That would be a nice offense to see. In 2019, the Dodgers led the league with a .215 ISO and they also finished first in runs scored with an 886 mark. The Mets finished seventh in both categories, with a .185 ISO and 791 runs scored.

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