The assorted baseball websites have been assessing Jeff McNeil’s forecast for the New York Mets 2023 season for a week or so since his participation in the World Baseball Classic. McNeil posted 5.7 bWAR in 2022, in about 600 plate appearances. He posted a 1.5 in 2020 in about 200 PAs. In 2019, 5.1 in another 600 PAs. The projection systems forecasting WAR in the mid-3s are weighting the 2021 injury too heavily. Probably.
One disclaimer about that is the critical assumption that he plays second base, and Luis Guillorme, bless him, doesn’t spend much time on the field in McNeil’s stead.
McNeil had a late start in his career, and he can do one thing very well, and that is put the ball in play. While strikeouts are not worse than any other out (significantly), McNeil also doesn’t hit into many double plays for his batting style. McNeil has a line drive stroke, and hits the ball back up the middle. With the changes in the shift rules, McNeil should continue to have success, and batting average drives his success.
The biggest reason to believe McNeil is likely to have a 5-WAR season is his ability to hit line drives. McNeil’s line drive percentages have increased through his career, and that is an undervalued skill. Line drives are not turned into outs with any real success, so if a player can hit line drives, the player does the most important thing as a hitter they can do: not make outs.
McNeil also posts on-base percentages in the upper three hundreds, well above league average, but most of that is attributable to his ability to hit for a high average. His actual walk rate is a little lower than the league average, and McNeil, like most Mets, supplements that with HBPs.
McNeil has the right swing for value, and it shows in all the advanced stats with respect to expected batted ball outcomes. Even today’s projections have not advanced to include these types of subtleties, and these are where the upcoming season for McNeil is likely maintain present levels.
Another area the forecasters are off is the change in defense. Looking at some expected defensive performances, there is significant negative WAR, where Statcast and other metrics place his defense in the “average” category. His runs saved will be in the 0-5 range at second base.
Here is where the “Probably” comes in.
There are a few areas where McNeil should be judged with wider error bars in a given projection. The first is his age. McNeil is what is commonly referred to as “the wrong side of 30”, and that is historically a real thing. The question then is whether McNeil’s shorter MLB career to date is a plus or a minus. Has less MLB fatigue meant less damage to his knees and back and so forth, such that his aging curve is a little less steep on his decline? This does generally call for a reduction in defensive performance – the proverbial “lost a step” penalty.
Age also signals less bat speed/reaction time. For any given player, the answer is always maybe, maybe not, but the data for a century indicates this is the beginning of the end – for nearly everyone.
The second thing that may or may not be a negative for McNeil is his exit velocity. This is where public analysts have yet to tread. Will players like McNeil age like Tony Gwynn – because that is McNeil’s profile. Here are Gwynn’s lifetime numbers in the majors:
But no one should be compared to a true Hall of Famer. Nonetheless there is a real path, and if McNeil had a downward trajectory, this story would be different. In 2022, McNeil saw increases in most areas where decline starts, so perhaps Father Time has to wait another season or four.
Most baseball websites, even Mets ones, think McNeil is going to have a good year, but a 40-50% decline in value. I think his finer skills are missed by the macro assessments of most projection systems. You can see those projections, along with Brian’s, in our projection for McNeil.