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Considering he went into the season talking about hitting .400, Jeff McNeil had a rather quiet 2020, to the point where he was dropped toward the bottom of the lineup for a while, no doubt causing apoplexy for a guy who is convinced he should never make an out and howls at the moon when he does.
Yet he still hit .311 and did enough with the bat that when MLB Network this week unveiled its list of Top 10 second basemen going into 2021, McNeil was ranked No. 2 behind only DJ LeMahieu, despite having played only 103 games at the position in his three years in the big leagues.
That’s some rather remarkable recognition, and it prompts the question: just how high is the ceiling for McNeil, anyway?
Three years into his major league career, or three years since he hit his way from minor league obscurity to being called the next Daniel Murphy, McNeil has dazzled the baseball world with his bat, even flashing enough pop to raise the question of whether he preferred to lead the league in hitting or show off his home run power.
There were times last season when some scouts were wondering if McNeil himself was somewhat caught in the middle, thinking he could do both. For although he talked about believing he could hit .400 in a 60-game season, at least one scout I spoke to thought he began the season trying to pull nearly every pitch he saw, only the ball wasn’t going out of the park as it had the second half of 2019, when he hit 16 of his 23 home runs in 57 games.
“He got out of whack a little bit early,” one scout recalled this week, while noting that he could only make such observations via TV, since scouts weren’t allowed in ballparks due to the pandemic. “Then he hurt his knee (in a collision with the left-field wall), and I believe that affected him for awhile.
“He didn’t look right to me until September. Then he went back to hitting line drives, using the whole field, and he looked like that guy who can really handle the bat. If he can stick with that approach, he’ll probably win a batting title and he’ll hit with power too if he just lets it happen.”
It’s true, McNeil finished with a flourish that was somewhat overlooked as the Mets faded from playoff contention, showcasing not only his elite hand-eye coordination but better plate discipline that allowed him to get pitches he could handle and drive for extra-base power.
Thu result was a spectacular slash line of .356/.431/.567 over his final 24 games, suggesting the possibilities for what McNeil might do in his age-29 season in 2021.
Suffice it to say the Mets want to believe that. One person in the organization told me there’s a feeling McNeil came to grips last season with his desire to hit home runs. Mets people noticed, for example, that when he did find his power stroke, hitting four home runs in four-straight games in early September, he didn’t start trying to force the long ball.
“I think he’s learned to take the home runs when they come,” the Mets person said. “It did look like that second half of 2019 got in his head a little bit coming into last season. He might have been trying a little too hard to pull the ball when the season started.
“But I think at some point he realized he’s at his best when he’s just letting his natural ability to get the barrel to the ball take over, hitting the ball where it’s pitched.
“It’s exciting to think about what he might do this year. He battled through that knee injury last year, but it was only about 40 games into the season that he was locked in. There’s no telling what kind of year he might have had in a normal (162-game) season.”
The numbers indicate that McNeil did pay a price for that outstanding catch he made on Aug. 13, injuring his knee as he ran into the left field wall. After missing a few games, he hit only .174 in eight games over a period of 12 days, managing just four singles in 23 at-bats.
“He looked limited,” one scout said. “Like he couldn’t drive off his legs.”
At least partly as a result, by the end of August McNeil was hitting a soft .269 with a .681 OPS, leading manager Luis Rojas to drop him in the lineup, mostly to the seventh spot and once as low as eighth.
“As intense as he is, I’m sure that didn’t sit well,” the Mets person said, chuckling at the thought. “This is a guy who thinks he can hit .300 standing on his head. Hitting has always come relatively easy to him.”
In fact, it was only a series of injuries in the minors, as well as a need to add strength to his lean frame, that kept him from reaching the majors before he did at age 26.
McNeil will turn 29 in April so he should be right in his prime, and it’s a testament to his skill as a hitter that MLB Network ranked him so highly among all current second basemen. After all, he played only 49 games at the position the last two seasons, but now figures to be there regularly in 2021 due to Robinson Cano’s PED suspension.
So what will the season bring? If McNeil picks up where he left off last September, he might just win the batting title that others have predicted for him. More significantly, he figures to be a force in what has a chance to be a championship-caliber offense.
Meanwhile, with the addition of Francisco Lindor, as well as the possibility there will be no DH in the National League, McNeil could be hitting anywhere in the top three spots of the Mets’ lineup.
He won’t be hitting seventh.