Most fans are familiar with the concept – if not necessarily when or how to apply it – of a small sample size. A sample with fewer chances shouldn’t be taken as seriously as one with a much greater pool of outcomes. Tomas Nido put up a 150 wRC+ last year, which is essentially what Mike Piazza did in 2000 yet no one is saying he should be the team’s starting catcher. That’s because Nido’s sample last year was 26 PA while Piazza’s in 2000 was 545.

While everyone seems to agree on Nido, we don’t have to look far for examples in 2020 where people are too eager to dismiss sample size. Far too many people want to lock up Michael Conforto to an extension based on 2020 results with a .412 BABIP. Far too many people want to consider Brandon Nimmo a platoon player based on 60 PA last season. Far too many people consider David Peterson a rotation lock based on a 3.44 ERA in 49.2 IP.

And this issue cuts both ways. It’s not only when a player achieves good results that we should be suspicious of the sample size. Which brings us to Jeff McNeil and his ability to play 3B. If given my druthers, McNeil would be the Mets’ starting second baseman in 2021, a position he should have been playing in 2020 and 2019, too. But Sandy Alderson isn’t reaching out to me, so the assumption is that McNeil will be playing elsewhere the majority of the time next season.

Many are repulsed with the idea of seeing McNeil on the left side of the infield ever again. In 75 innings at the hot corner in 2020, McNeil committed five errors, a rate that makes even Wilmer Flores wince. McNeil was bad – really, really bad – at third base. Typically, we consider 1,200 innings in the field to be a full season. Also, there’s a general understanding that it takes two years of defensive chances to give you the same reliability as one year of offensive numbers.

Understanding those two things about defensive samples – isn’t saying McNeil can’t play third based on what he did in 75 innings last season an even worse idea than comparing 2020 Nido to 2000 Piazza?

We know that McNeil has previous experience playing third base. In the minors, he saw 152 games at third base and logged 1,279 innings at the hot corner. We don’t have advanced fielding numbers in the minors, so we’ll use what we have. In the minors, McNeil had a .951 fielding percentage, which isn’t great but is significantly better than the .865 mark he put up in the majors at third last season. McNeil also saw time at 3B in the majors prior to 2020. Most of that came in 2019, when in 154.1 innings, he put up a .977 fielding percentage. That’s a pretty good mark.

Should a bad mark in 75 innings be more important than a good mark in a sample twice as large? Especially given that last year’s results came in the non-standard Covid campaign, with its stops and starts in the leadup to the season?

Let’s take a minute to look at the advanced defensive numbers of McNeil at third base in the majors. It’s important to note that this is a tiny sample, too. But in 245.1 innings at third, McNeil has a +5 DRS and a +2.7 UZR. That translates to a +11.1 UZR/150 – even given his spectacularly bad play at third base in 2020. Finally, Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) has McNeil at 0 for his MLB career at 3B.

For a point of comparison, J.D. Davis has played 770 innings at third base in the majors. He has a lifetime (-19) DRS, a (-3.0) UZR, a (-3.9) UZR/150 and a (-5) OAA.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the influence of Steve Cohen’s financial might will show up in areas besides the team’s expenditure on player salaries. And one way this could work would be to hire an infield coach who can work with McNeil, specifically on the mechanics of his throwing. My opinion is that McNeil’s issue isn’t that he doesn’t have the arm strength to play the hot corner but rather in how he chooses to throw the ball needs to be overhauled.

And perhaps this infield coach could help the team improve its defensive positioning, too. In a recent article, Jake Mailhot said this about the Mets’ infield:

[T]he Mets aren’t very creative when it comes to positioning their infielders. In 2019, they shifted their infield just 14.1% of the time, the third-fewest infield shifts in baseball. They were a little more shifty in 2020, increasing their rate by seven points up to 21.4%. But that still placed them in the bottom tier in baseball. That refusal to reposition their infielders could explain why their defensive efficiency on groundballs didn’t really budge from 2019 to 2020 while their individual defensive ratings improved. Their infielders were able to convert balls hit to them into outs at a higher rate, but their inefficient positioning meant there were just as many balls hit into the holes in their defense.

My opinion is that some more work by McNeil – combined with better coaching and better defensive positioning – along with a more traditional season will result in much better defensive performance from him at the hot corner in 2021. It’s a mistake to think that 75 innings at third base in 2020 defines him as a fielder and that McNeil should never be given the chance to play there again.

10 comments on “Jeff McNeil and the trouble with small sample conclusions

  • Stephen

    Thank you for posting this. I have been arguing this point with my buddies for a while. My argument has been – get a defensive center fielder that will allow Nimmo to move to left and allow McNeil to move to third. With coaching and repetition, McNeil would be an excellent (well, maybe very good) third baseman. This will improve the overall defense for the team and allow resources to shore up the pitching staff

  • TJ

    Agreed. Good points.

    It is a bit surprising that Sandy hasn’t reached out to you yet. He may just be a little busy.

  • Remember1969

    It will be interesting to see what the new regime’s approach will be with McNeil. My biggest argument for not playing him at third is not his stat sheet, but that the Mets braintrust, whoever that may be, did not see him as a viable third baseman after his horrendous 2020 start. Once they moved him off after nine games, he never went back. That tells me that the coaches did not think he was the best solution there. It is possible that BVW made a unilateral decision. Who knows.

    • Brian Joura

      Let’s recall this is the same braintrust that let Wheeler walk to sign Porcello/Wacha, decided it was a good idea to bat a guy with a lifetime .305 OBP first in the order and made a platoon player out of a guy who came into the season with a .783 OPS facing same-sided hurlers.

  • Chris F

    I’ll take the other side on this. I don’t think there’s any chance he is a major league third baseman, and has zero business on the left side of the infield. I don’t think comparing minor league game play and major league is near the same at a position where game speed is much faster. This showed up in strings of bad throws. Not everyone make make the distance from third to first accurately and with heat. On top of the 5 errors, both Smith and Alonso bailed him out of more errors with fans tactic plays. He would have had several more. So the sample size is small, but this is not entirely a statistics game, in that he will magically get better by having more attempts. For a team in perpetual win now mode the question is how long do you let the experiment go before you feel ok with finding out if his arm gets more accurate, or if his fast-twitch reactions at the hot corner when he’s playing level with the bag improve. McNeil is primarily a second baseman, and played well there at the big leagues. Third base is an experiment, and I hate having experiments happening at the big league level unless the season is aimed more at rebuilding. McNeil at 3B? No thanks.

  • Edwin e Pena

    Sadly agree that Squirrel McNeil is not a 3baseman. Why couldn’t Cano or Rosario play there ? Both have the arm and are both lifelong infielders. Either could be may be a smash over there and allow McNeil to play what is most likely his best position at 2B. If not Cano, then if Mets trade for Lindor and Gimenez is part of the package, let Rosario take a turn at 3B. Lindor trade will most likely take JDD, Gimenez and maybe even Nimmo. Please don’t send Indians Dom.
    Dom Smith can play LF and get replaced in the late innings with new Met Mallex Smith, good defense and speed.
    Get JT Realmuto and Springer and this team would have a starting nine of:
    C Realmuto
    1B Alonso
    2B McNeil
    SS Lindor (trade for JDD, Gimenez, Nimmo)
    3B Rosario
    LF Dom
    CF Springer
    RF Conforto
    DH Cano

    Now, about that pitching staff…need two more arms to go with Degrom, Stro, Peterson…

  • Metsense

    If there isn’t a DH next year then McNeil should be the starting 3B. He is a better player than Davis. McNeil is a better LF than Smith. Defensively Smith at LF is better than Davis is at 3B. Therfore McNeil should start at 3B, Smith should start in LF and Davis should get reduced playing time.
    The DH would benefit Davis. It would be his primary position but he would get time at 3B . McNeil would play other positions and the DH would rotate.
    Davis 3B > McNeil 2B > Cano DH
    Davis 3B > McNeil LF > Smith DH
    Davis 3B > McNeil RF > Conforto DH
    Davis 3B > McNeill LF > Smith 1B > Alonso DH
    Davis 3B > McNeil DH
    Offensively this works but defensively it is problematic. Davis’ defense is the core of the problem and Smith in LF isn’t ideal but McNeil isn’t the primary defensively problem.

  • TexasGusCC

    I agree with Chris in that McNeil didn’t show the accuracy to play the position and if we want to accept minor league stats, why aren’t we accepting Flores’ stats at 3B? Too, I feel that Davis showed the aptitude to play the position but needs repetitions. I wouldn’t give up on him too quickly. My fear is that Alderson will discount him and move him like BVW discounted Kelenic and got rid of him straight away to bring in his boy.

    McNeil plays a good LF and that shouldn’t be taken for granted, in fact it may be his best position. This may allow the Mets flexibility to get Lindor, put Giminez at 2B, and move Nimmo or Conforto.

  • Peter

    “ If given my druthers, McNeil would be the Mets’ starting second baseman in 2021, a position he should have been playing in 2020 and 2019, too. But Sandy Alderson isn’t reaching out to me, so the assumption is that McNeil will be playing elsewhere the majority of the time next season.”

    Perhaps he should.

  • Chris Dial

    Brilliant analysis

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