The fate of a team during the 162-game MLB season rarely hinges a single player, but it can certainly be impacted by the under or overperformance of one. Hardly ever is the overperformance contributing to success talked about, but more often it is the underperformance that is talked about. If you are at all plugged in to the New York sports media scene, you especially hear about the underperformers. Last season, there was plenty to complain about with the New York Mets. Beyond the pitching, there was the underperformance of two players that were supposed to be linchpins in the lineup: Jeff McNeil and Starling Marte. Marte’s season was derailed by injury, which resulted in the worst season of his professional career. McNeil struggled through the first half of the 2023 season, which went hand in hand with the overall struggles of the team.
McNeil’s struggles in correlation to the performance of the team came to a head in June, when he had a paltry slash line of .196/.267/.283 with an OPS of .550. The Mets record was 7-19 that month, and the struggles of McNeil and other players that month essentially sunk their entire season. Despite McNeil’s struggles early last season, in looking at his season in a holistic way, he was actually only slightly below average when comparing to his career numbers. McNeil can be a tricky player to analyze, since 2021 he has essentially been a metronome of different performance levels, with his OPS+ going from 87 in 2021 to 140 in 2022, and regressing back to 96 in 2023. Regardless of which way the metronome swings this season, it is not a stretch to say that McNeil’s performance will have a significant impact on the outcome of the season.
One main reason that the Mets will be heavily reliant on McNeil is that he is a player who never really comes out of the lineup. He’s played in 304 of the 324 games the Mets have played the last two seasons, which is a feat given the way hard nosed style that he plays with. It is also remarkable considering the way that Buck Showalter moved him around the diamond. Although he saw the majority of his action at second base and in the corner outfield slots, McNeil has actually suited up at every position except pitcher and catcher the past two seasons. This allows McNeil to be the super sub for the franchise, and makes him crucial to spelling weary legs during the hot summer months. The versatility stretches over to the batting order as well, with McNeil batting everywhere in the lineup but eighth last season.
Another reason that McNeil will be looked at as an important part of the upcoming season is one that might be unexpected. McNeil was a tremendous clutch hitter last season, which sounds ironic at first glance because of the way the season turned out. More so than Pete Alonso or Fransisco Lindor, McNeil statistically delivered for the team when they needed a hit. In fact, McNeil supremely excelled at tie-game situations, with a 104 OPS+ and a .294 BAbip. What is especially striking about McNeil is that unlike Lindor and Alonso, his numbers were actually better when the Mets were behind in games then when they were ahead. Essentially, whenever the game was tied, McNeil was a player that was able to step up to the plate and make things happen. In a lineup that is full of powerful sluggers in Alonso, Lindor, and Francisco Alvarez, it is important to have a player like McNeil to balance things out. If you were to judge McNeil’s 2023 season solely on the first half, it would be a gray scene, much like the team as a whole. The reality about last season for McNeil however is that once he corrected course, he had an important, positive impact on the team.
With the Mets not yet bringing in any notable offensive pieces to the team, McNeil will once again have to play an important role in the batting order. Mets fans should feel comfortable with McNeil, knowing that he is a durable, flexible player that can plug in and play hard whenever and wherever you need him. The Mets lineup, if it can remain healthy, should be potent enough to help the team compete for a wildcard spot, which is reflected in their over/under total of 82.5 games for this season. Don’t be surprised when McNeil plays a big part in helping them hit the over.