Jeff McNeil Swings Softly, But Carries a Big Stick

© Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

In a race for the National League batting title that ended up coming down to the final day, Jeff McNeil emerged victorious, hitting .465 (20-for-43) in his last 11 games of the season (he was a late defensive replacement Wednesday, but didn’t hit) to finish at .326, one point higher than Freddie Freeman for the highest in the majors. McNeil’s final two weeks put a bow on a career year. He finished with 5.9 WAR, 16th among major league hitters and the most by any Mets primary second baseman save Edgardo Alfonzo, who set the mark with 5.9 WAR in 1999 and then bested it with 6.4 in 2000 (of course, McNeil also spent a good chunk of time in the outfield). He started the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, some 100 miles from his southern California home, and now his Mets are headed to his first career postseason. It’s a good year to be Jeff McNeil.

McNeil has generated his value with a set of skills very different from those of your typical modern All-Star or 5.9-WAR player. In a home run era, he’s been as far from a power hitter as an All-Star gets. He finished 2022 with nine home runs, including two in his final three games, making him just the third player in the last decade to amass as many as 5.5 WAR without clearing the fence 10 times. He hit 23 home runs in 2019, the homer-happiest season in major league history, but even with that outlier included, he’s still gone deep in just 2.3% of his big league plate appearances.

In truth, your 2022 batting champion is among the softest-hitting big leaguers in the game, ranking in the 12th percentile in average exit velocity, the eighth percentile in hard-hit percentage, and the seventh percentile in barrel percentage. Just 13 of his 477 batted balls this season registered as barrels:

Jeff McNeil’s 2022 Batted Ball Profile
Statistic Value Percentile
Average Exit Velocity 86.9 mph 12th
Hard Hit % 30.2% 8th
Barrel % 2.7% 7th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

And while McNeil certainly contributed some good defense at second base and in the outfield this year, his fielding didn’t account for a disproportionate amount of his value. His 31.3 runs of offensive value ranked 15th in the majors, just 0.4 behind teammate and 40-home run club member Pete Alonso, his near-polar opposite from a batting profile perspective. In the last 30 seasons, the only other players to produce as much offense with a single-digit home run total are Craig Biggio in 1994, Ichiro Suzuki in 2004, José Reyes in 2011, and Jose Altuve in 2014:

Offensive Production With Fewer Than 10 Home Runs
Player Season Team HR Off WAR
Jeff McNeil 2022 NYM 9 31.3 5.9
Jose Altuve 2014 HOU 7 33.3 5.2
José Reyes 2011 NYM 7 34.9 5.8
Ichiro Suzuki 2004 SEA 8 33.9 7.1
Craig Biggio 1994 HOU 6 34.8 4.4

So how does a soft-hitting second baseman – who, by the way, doesn’t walk much either – tally enough hits to nab a batting title and turn in one of the best offensive seasons of any player in the league?

Obviously, most of McNeil’s value had to come from hits that stay in the park. In addition to leading the majors in batting average, he singled or doubled in 30.8% of his at-bats, nearly a full percentage point higher than fellow batting champ Luis Arraez. Now, these hits aren’t exactly easy to come by on weak contact, and looking at McNeil’s batted ball profile, one might be tempted to point to luck. He has outperformed his xBA by nearly 50 points, and his xSLG by 70. His wOBA was 17th among 130 qualifying hitters this regular season; his xwOBA was 69th. His .353 BABIP ranked sixth, a good 60 points above league average. But these numbers follow a pretty consistent career trend for McNeil, indicating that luck isn’t solely responsible for this discrepancy. McNeil has outperformed his xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA by pretty board margins in each season of his career except for 2021, a down year in which he dealt with lingering hamstring issues for a chunk of the spring and early summer:

Jeff McNeil Stats vs. X-Stats
2018 .329 .274 .471 .407 .368 .325
2019 .318 .283 .531 .465 .384 .350
2020 .311 .277 .454 .407 .360 .337
2021 .251 .257 .360 .387 .301 .315
2022 .326 .279 .454 .384 .365 .320

There are a few primary components of McNeil’s game that enable him to rack up singles and doubles at elite rates without hitting the ball hard, and thus outperform his expected metrics.

First – though this is accounted for in expected metrics, but more on that later – he’s just really, really good at getting the bat to the ball. He finished third among qualifiers in strikeout percentage with a 10.4% rate, his lowest since his rookie year. And while he wasn’t particularly disciplined, swinging at a third of pitches outside the strike zone, his career-best 86.0% contact rate is in the top 15% of qualifiers. Put the bat on the ball that much, and you’ll end up with a lot of hits.

Also, for what it’s worth, some of his batted ball metrics undersell the quality of his contact. While he doesn’t hit the ball very hard, he’s one of the best in the game at squaring the ball up, ranking seventh among 2022 qualifiers in line drive percentage (23.8%) and fifth in balls in play hit up the middle (40.1%). On his radial chart from Baseball Savant, we can see just how many of his hits had the launch angle of a barrel if not the exit velocity. Altogether, 99 of his 174 hits, 56.9%, were categorized by Baseball Savant as flares/burners, the middle range highlighted in the radial chart below. These hits won’t qualify as hard-hit or barrels, as their average exit velocity is just 91.0 mph, but this type of contact allows McNeil to reach base at a .697 clip. Square contact is square contact, and even if it doesn’t come with Stantonian exit velocities, it’s going to get you on base more often than not:

Another part of McNeil’s game that allows him to generate value on soft contact is more subtle. While he isn’t exactly known as a threat on the bases, and fits squarely in the middle of the sprint speed leaderboards, McNeil got from home to first base in a speedy 4.17 seconds on average this year, good for 22nd out of 529 batter-runners and .01 behind the likes of Byron Buxton. No player with as low a sprint speed as McNeil’s 27.3 mph got down the line as fast as he did – indeed, every player who went home to first faster than McNeil had a sprint speed of at least 1.0 mph faster. When it comes to good baserunning, sprint speed isn’t the only ingredient that matters.

McNeil is putting the ball in play at these elite rates and getting out of that left-handed batter’s box fast, forcing defenses to make plays and enabling him to steal singles and doubles where he can. On balls in play categorized as topped, for example, McNeil hit .289 with a .336 slugging percentage this year. The league hit .172 with a .192 SLG. Here’s a look at this quickness on display on a few of his topped grounders, the first one from Tuesday:

Of course, getting from home to first quickly puts him in a great position to take second on some of his base hits as well. The average double this year was hit at 97.7 mph with a launch angle of 17.0 degrees; McNeil’s average double was hit with a 93.2 mph exit velocity and a 12.4 degree launch angle. He led the Mets and ranked eighth in the National League with 39 doubles – just three of which came on barrels.

McNeil’s ability to get down the line fast contributes to his habit of outperforming his expected stats. xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA do factor in a player’s speed on certain batted balls, but they factor in their sprint speed values, not their home to first values, which makes for a very different outcome in Jeff McNeil’s case. The expected stats don’t account for his speed out of the box, nor do they consider his ability to advance to second on certain flares or burners. His elite contact skills, though accounted for in expected stats, heighten his ability to impact the game with his speed. Nor do baserunning stats like UBR consider batter-runners reaching first base. If McNeil takes second on a base hit, he is simply awarded a double, which is accounted for in his overall offensive value, of course, but not in his component baserunning metrics. McNeil was a plus baserunner with 1.9 BsR, but this metric also under-appreciates his specific capabilities.

So there’s the formula – square the ball up and put it in play, and haul ass down the line. It sounds a lot simpler than it is, and the rarity of a season like McNeil’s is evidence of that. In McNeil’s case, it at least contributed to a player expected to be at the middle of the pack rising to the level of a top-20 offensive player in baseball this season, earning himself a batting title along the way.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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3 months ago

Is the horizontal angle part of what’s going on here? Watching him it certainly *feels* like he has that “hit ’em where they ain’t” ability to actually direct the baseball toward holes in the defense. And my impression is that the xBA stuff does not take account of horizontal angles? But I dunno if there’s any actual empirical knowledge about this, whether it’s a real skill, etc.

3 months ago
Reply to  hurricanexyz

It sure doesn’t

3 months ago
Reply to  hurricanexyz

Anecdotally I recall several times when he’s seemed to guide the ball through the SS hole when some team is shifting him to pull on the IF. Not sure if that’s representative or not though but it’s been noticeable to me!