The case could be made that Jeff McNeil has been the best hitter on the Mets this year. OPS is a commonly used metric to rate batters, and McNeil’s total of .835 leads the team, just ahead of Pete Alonso and his .833 OPS. Yet, more often than not, McNeil has been hitting toward the bottom part of the batting order.
Traditionally, the best hitters on a team have hit somewhere in the first four slots in the batting order. Normally your best power hitter would bat cleanup, your best OBP guy would hit leadoff especially if he was speedy, the best contact hitter would hit second, and the best all around hitter would hit third. Lately some metrics have shown that the best all-around hitter should bat second, and some teams do that.
On merit, McNeil should probably be hitting either second or third much of the time. However, that has not been the case this year. So far, the Mets have played thirty games, and McNeil has started 26 of them. After sifting through the box scores, I see McNeil has batted third exactly five times, and not once has hit second this year. Nor has he batted fourth. He has batted leadoff five times, with four of those starts during the time Brandon Nimmo, the usual leadoff hitter, was on the Covid injured list.
He has batted toward the bottom of the order…a lot. He has hit fifth once, sixth twice, seventh three times, and eighth, a whopping 11 times. Frequently back in April when either Robinson Cano or Dom Smith were in the lineup, they were higher in the batting order than McNeil despite the minimal production those two were providing.
This does make a difference on several levels. Obviously the eighth hitter is going to get less at bats than hitters higher up in the order, enough to make some difference over time. In addition, the eighth hitter is less likely to have runners on base for him to drive in, and is less likely to be driven in by the batter behind him. In McNeil’s case that would be the catcher, either James McCann or Tomas Nido. Both are defense first players this year with poor offensive production.
McNeill leads the team in BA, and is second in OBP and SLG. Yet he is further down the team leaderboard when it comes to stats that are partially reliant on the production of other players nearby in the batting order, and on total at-bats. Specifically McNeil is fourth in RBI and fifth in runs scored on the team. These can be considered run-creating statistics, and it would be fair to conclude that batting McNeil so low in the lineup is costing the teams some runs.
One might say the team is doing well with the lineup construction as it is. However it is possible that the could have a very successful year but finish a game behind the teams that get a first round bye, and that McNeil in a better batting slot might have won an extra game or two over the course of the season.
Is there a reason manager Buck Showalter has buried McNeil deep in the order as much as he has? He was asked about that, and he indicated he wanted to spread his good hitters around the batting order. I can’t remember any other team employing this strategy to any extent.
In addition, it is not so much Showalter spreading his good hitters around, McNeil is the only one of the good hitters who bats that low. Nimmo has invariably been the leadoff hitter, and Alonso the clean-up hitter. Starling Marte (.709 OPS) has hit mostly second, Francisco Lindor (.742) third, and Eduardo Escobar (.693) has been wedded to the five hole. Only McNeil of the the better hitters on the team has spent lots of time toward the bottom of the order.
I haven’t seen anything about McNeil publicly complaining about batting so low in the order so often, and that is to his credit. It should be noted that the decreased run creation stats McNeil has had could impact his salary in the future. So far he has pre-arbitration salaries, but his next contract could involve an arbitrator. It’s possible an arbitrator could put weight on RBI and runs scored, to McNeil’s detriment.
It’s hard to fault Showalter too much on this point since the team is having such a good season. But I really would like some believable clarification from him on why McNeil is near the bottom of the batting order so often.