Jeff McNeil, Secret Strike Zone Wizard

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff McNeil has been pretty good so far this year. He’s hitting .328/.388/.492, good for a 163 wRC+. He’s starting all over the field, making the Mets’ complicated lineup decisions easier. That’s great! That’s all good. Today, though, I’m more interested in the fact that he’s displaying strike zone judgment usually reserved for Juan Soto, Joey Votto, and God.

McNeil has always been one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball. That hasn’t changed this year. Here are the hitters who swing the most at pitches in the strike zone:

Highest Zone Swing Rates, 2022
Player Z-Swing%
Jeff McNeil 87.4%
Avisaíl García 85.1%
Corey Seager 85.1%
Tim Anderson 84.0%
Ryan Mountcastle 83.9%

This is not news. From 2018-21, his career prior to this year, McNeil led baseball in zone swing rate. This year, he leads baseball in zone swing rate. He is continuing to do what he’s always done! More at 11.

But wait, there is more. You know how these swing-happy types work. Take a look at the list again. García has a career 6.3% walk rate and it’s heading lower this year. Anderson has a career 3.5% walk rate. Mountcastle hardly walks for a slugger. Seager – well, okay, Seager is just great. But swinging a lot at pitches in the strike zone also generally means swinging a lot at pitches outside of the strike zone.

Indeed, García and Anderson are the two hitters chasing the most pitches outside the zone. Mountcastle is in the top 15. Seager – yeah, still great. But McNeil is nowhere near that! He’s chasing only 29.1% of pitches outside the zone, a lower rate than the league as a whole and by far a career low. His in-zone swing rate, by the way, is a career high. Did Jeff McNeil crack the code?

I’ll stop you right here. Zone and out-of-zone swing rates aren’t my favorite way of looking at swing decisions. Taking a pitch on the low outside corner and taking a cookie right down the middle aren’t the same. Baseball Savant separates the strike zone up into four zones rather than two to handle this issue. The heart, shadow, chase, and waste zones look like this:

Swing at pitches down the heart of the plate. Exercise good judgment in the shadow zone – this one’s kind of tricky, because it encompasses the boundaries of the zone. Take everything else. That’s the ideal way to handle things, though of course hitting is hard and perfect judgment is impossible.

Let’s try this again. Here are major league hitters in 2022 ordered by swing rate in the heart of the zone:

Highest Heart Swing Rates, 2022
Player Heart Swing%
Tyler Naquin 90.2%
Ryan Mountcastle 90.0%
Ozzie Albies 89.5%
Corey Seager 89.5%
Marcus Semien 87.7%
Jeff McNeil 87.5%

I had to take the list to six this time – thanks a lot, Tyler Naquin, for just sneaking over my 50-pitch minimum. There’s Seager, still looking good, as befits a hitter of his caliber – he’s off to a slow start this year, but it’s not because he’s making bad swing decisions. McNeil is right there at the top. His aggression in the zone isn’t him swinging at a pile of tough pitches. If you throw him something down the middle, he’s taking a hack. That’s always been the case, and it still is.

What about the other side, swings at chase and waste zone pitches? Raimel Tapia leads the league here, swinging at an unconscionable 41.5% of bad pitches. García is third on the list. Anderson is fourth and having a great season – swinging at bad pitches isn’t disqualifying if you make a lot of loud contact. But for the most part, if you swing a lot at pitches that aren’t anywhere near the strike zone, it’s tough to be good.

On the bottom of the scale – well okay, fine, McNeil isn’t at the bottom. That would be Will Smith, who has swung at one (!) of the 64 pitches he’s seen in the chase and waste zones this year. But McNeil is doing pretty well nonetheless. There have been 258 players who have seen 50 or more pitches in these zones combined. McNeil has taken a swing at 13.6% of the pitches he’s seen in those zones so far this year, in the lowest third of the league in swing rate. That’s lowest as in the least swings, as in good – percentile ranks can be confusing when you want less of a thing.

Taken together, that makes McNeil the best hitter in baseball when it comes to going after good pitches to hit and avoiding bad ones. He and Marcus Semien are tied for the best mark in a statistic I just made up, which I call excess good swings — heart swing rate minus chase/waste swing rate. It’s not a perfect statistic, because using a simple rate for both gives too much weight to swinging at good pitches. It’s better to avoid bad pitches than it is to swing at good pitches – for an obvious reason. Bad things can happen when you swing at good pitches. Bad things can’t happen when you take bad pitches.

But still – McNeil is tied for the best at my cherry-picked statistic. He and Semien swing at a whopping 73.9 percentage points more pitches in the heart of the zone than out in the hinterlands. The league average is 56 percentage points over the past two years. Finding good pitches to hit is an incredibly valuable skill, and by this particular metric, McNeil stands out.

Using rates isn’t a sufficient way to describe things, of course. We can do better. Swinging at a pitch over the heart of the plate is valuable for two reasons: you’re more likely to hit it, and you’re more likely to do damage when you do. There’s even a third reason: not swinging results in a strike, which isn’t great.

That’s the plain English of it. The math is like this: over the last two years (I’m doing all my league-wide statistics over the last two years to avoid thinking too much about the decline in offense), batters have produced a .414 wOBA when they put a heart-zone pitch into play (.368 across all balls in play). They’ve barreled up 11.2% of those balls (7.9% overall). And 30.5% have been hit above 100 mph (23% overall). Swinging at good pitches makes loud contact easier. It makes missing less likely as well. Hitters have whiffed on 15.3% of swings in the heart of the zone, as compared to 25.9% of all swings.

How about those swings at bad pitches? They’re an unmitigated disaster. Batters whiff on 58% of them, more than double the overall rate. Even if they do happen to hit them, they produce a .264 wOBA on those balls in play, which is embarrassingly bad. How bad? That’s worse than Billy Hamilton’s career production on balls in play, and only Austin Hedges has produced a worse mark since 2015.

Okay, got it: yes to swings at good pitches, no to swings at bad pitches. You already knew that. You’re a baseball fan. You’re reading FanGraphs. I just wanted to give you the details so you’d comprehend how important it is to swing at easier pitches to hit. Also, since it’s FanGraphs, let’s do some convoluted math to turn this skill into a one-metric deal, isolating swing decisions based on where pitches are thrown to turn “swing at good pitches and take bad ones” into a soundbite you can use in arguments at your local bar, provided your local bar really cares about advanced statistics.

First, I used Baseball Savant’s run values to approximate a league-wide value for swinging or taking in each zone, like so:

Run Value/100 by Swing and Zone, 2021-22
Zone Swing Take
Heart 0.42 -5.92
Shadow -3.62 -0.06
Chase -8.09 6.07
Waste -12.29 5.63

That’s basically what you’d expect: taking pitches in the heart of the plate is a disaster. Swinging at bad pitches is even worse. If the pitcher hits the fringes of the zone, well, good luck! Hitters behave accordingly: the better the pitch, the more frequently they swing:

Swing Rate by Zone, 2021-22
Zone Swing Rate
Heart 73.4%
Shadow 52.8%
Chase 22.0%
Waste 5.3%

Naturally, if a hitter were completely average – if they saw pitches in each zone at an average rate, swung at an average rate in each zone, and compiled league average results on contact – they’d be an exactly average offensive player. Shocking, I’m sure. Now, all we have to do is hold production on contact and the rate at which they see pitches in each zone constant, and we can use each player’s actual swing rates by zone to figure out how many runs they’re adding or subtracting with their swing decisions.

I took every hitter who has seen at least 50 pitches in each zone since the start of the 2021 season and calculated a run value using this method. The best hitter in the majors when it comes to swinging at (and taking) the right kinds of pitches? Mike Tauchman, obviously, who added roughly 0.62 runs per 100 pitches when he was in the bigs merely by knowing when to swing (he departed for the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO this offseason). Over a full season, that’s something like 14.5 runs of value; call it roughly 30 points of wOBA (note: edited to correct a typo). Tauchman’s eye is phenomenally good compared to a regular hitter.

The top of the list makes a ton of sense, though, even if you’re not sold on Tauchman. Soto, Brandon Nimmo, and Trent Grisham are in the top five. Robbie Grossman and Alex Bregman know the zone. So do Cavan Biggio and Brandon Belt. McNeil isn’t quite as good here, which makes my praise seem overwrought — he’s in the 82nd percentile, above average but not elite. His eye is worth roughly 10 points of wOBA based on the same math — solid, of course, but not otherworldly.

What dropped him from best in the game to merely good? It’s that pesky shadow zone. McNeil is an aggressive swinger, and swinging at borderline pitches hurts so much that it overwhelms the good he does elsewhere. That’s too harsh on McNeil, though. He’s aggressive, yes, but he reserves most of his aggression for shadow-zone pitches that are in the rulebook strike zone. He swings at 76% of those, 16 percentage points more than league average. On pitches that just miss, he swings only 56% of the time, 12 points more than league average. It’s too many swings, but it’s clear that he has a good eye even as he swings quite a bit.

Did I do all this to tell you that McNeil has a good eye but should swing less? To some extent, yes. That’s obvious from watching him play, but it’s great to see the data bear it out. But I also like this approach because I can start with that cookie-cutter swing decision number and then consider nuances. Like: for McNeil in particular, it’s not so bad to swing at pitches on the fringes of the plate. In addition to swinging a lot, he makes a ton of contact. It simply costs him less to swing, particularly when he’s behind in the count and defending the plate – a big shortcoming of my analysis.

There’s one more thing to mention, though. McNeil’s newfound ability to lay off of bad pitches isn’t really new. He started displaying it last year. It didn’t show up in his walk rate, because pitchers attacked him in the zone quite a lot, but if you’re wild, McNeil will wait and get a pitch to hit. That sounds like a recipe for either a lot of walks or some well-hit balls; McNeil is a high BABIP guy for his career, and he’s swinging at bad pitches less often while maintaining his in-zone aggression.

So uh, why are his batted ball metrics so bad?

Part of it is that he just doesn’t have great top-line power. The hardest he’s ever hit a ball in the majors is 108.3 mph, hardly Stantonian. He also makes too much contact, if that makes sense. If you hit everything you swing at, you’re bound to make a lot of borderline contact. He makes contact on 73% of his swings outside the strike zone for his career, and that number is even higher this year. There are bound to be a lot of dinks and bloops in there; if he just missed those, he’d have more flattering batted ball metrics, though probably still not elite ones.

That’s too bad, because McNeil really does have gap-to-gap power. He’s a line drive machine – he’s turned pitches into line drives at roughly the same rate as Freddie Freeman in his career, though he swings more often to accomplish the trick, which makes it a bit less impressive. The power isn’t there, obviously, but he’s starting with a good base of high-but-not-too-high contact. If he swung harder and accepted a bit more swing and miss – easier said than done, I know – I think his results would pick up meaningfully.

McNeil’s contact rate barely budges between early counts and two-strike counts. His exit velocity barely declines when he has two strikes on him. He seems to take a similar approach in both situations. And McNeil could afford to do worse there, too. He makes so much contact that getting to two strikes doesn’t spell the end of an at-bat. In his career, he’s struck out 28.6% of the time after reaching a 1-2 count and put up a .277 wOBA. The league? They’re at 43.5% strikeouts and a .226 wOBA over the same time period.

Maybe these two parts of his game are inextricable. Maybe McNeil’s batting eye only works because of his all-contact-all-the-time swing. Maybe going more boom-bust in early counts would erode his approach in later counts, or maybe he’s simply already at maximum effort all the time. That wouldn’t be the end of the world – he’s a plus defender according to pretty much every defensive metric and never strikes out, like Nick Madrigal at 1.1x magnification.

Perhaps that’s not worth messing with. Before the season, ZiPS thought he’d be worth 7.7 WAR over the next three seasons thanks to a bat roughly 10% better than league average. I’m greedy, though. I want more. I want Michael Brantley with defense, not Madrigal plus a few bombs. I’m not saying it will happen. Probably, it won’t happen. But if you think of McNeil as a remorseless hacker, you’re wrong. He’s got the strike zone under control, and if he can add a bit of pop to his repertoire, he could be looking at a mid-career breakout.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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7 months ago

“Bad things can happen when you swing at good pitches. Bad things can’t happen when you take bad pitches.” Unless Angel Hernandez is the home plate umpire then he might call a strike anyway.