June 2013: McNeil was the Mets 12th round pick, out of Long Beach State, where they teach how to play baseball the right way. One of his teammates was his double-play partner was Matt Duffy. Jeff hit .348 his final year as a Dirt Bag. McNeil signed with Mets scout Drew Toussaint.
- Jeff thought his future was in golf until he was nearly out of high school. McNeil was good, too, playing the U.S. Junior Amateur in 2009.
The baseball player in the family was younger brother Ryan, who would become a third-round choice of the Chicago Cubs in the 2012 Draft out of high school. But McNeil decided to join his brother's summer league team before his senior season and showed he had a future in baseball as well as golf.
Baseball won out, and the native of Santa Barbara, California, landed at Long Beach State. Like Duffy, he didn't hit a homer out of cavernous Blair Field in his three seasons, but he impressed otherwise.
Golf, though, is still very much part of his life. On a early August off-day, in 2015 McNeil shot a five-under-par 67 at Martin Downs Golf Club in Palm City, Florida.
"I still have it occasionally," he said. "Not a single bogey."
McNeil went back and got his degree from Long Beach State in recreation and leisure and interned at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach.
"I can see myself in the business side of golf someday," he said. "Maybe even try to play a little bit on the mini-tour."
In 2016, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated McNeil as the 27th-best prospect in the Mets organization.
For most of this summer, Jeff waited, waited, waited for a callup that he figured would eventually come. Consistently batting well over .300, McNeil believed if he continued plugging away at the highest levels of the Minors, he would end the year in Flushing.
Prepared though he was, when the call finally came, McNeil scrambled. Watching television at his home in Las Vegas, McNeil stuffed all his belongings in a suitcase. Then he raced to the airport, where he narrowly missed his red-eye flight to New York. He quickly rebooked a slightly later one. "It was a little stressful," McNeil said, laughing.
The hectic day did not, however, affect McNeil's debut. Entering the 6-3 win over the Padres as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, McNeil punched the first pitch he saw into shallow center field for a single. The ball, which he plans to frame and give to his mother, was already on display in his locker after the game.
"It felt amazing," McNeil said. "You always want to get your first hit out of the way. I'll come back tomorrow and try to do the same thing."
He should continue to receive those opportunities. The Mets' roster flux offers a prime chance for McNeil, who hit safely in his last seven games at Las Vegas. He placed among the Eastern League's home run and OPS leaders throughout his time there.
A career .311 hitter in the Minor Leagues, McNeil credited his 2018 surge to being fully healthy for the first time in two years. Now recovered from a sports hernia and a torn hip labrum, which limited him to 51 games the past two seasons, McNeil says he has added enough bulk to turn his doubles into homers.
"I'm having a pretty good year," said McNeil, whose wife, parents, and siblings flew in from Santa Barbara, Calif., to watch his debut at Citi Field. "I was swinging the bat well. I was putting together good at-bats. I knew if I did that, I would eventually get a call."
The issue with McNeil is his defense. A natural second baseman, McNeil is blocked at that position by Asdrubal Cabrera, at least until the Mets find a trade partner for the veteran. Instead, McNeil figures to play third base with the Mets -- a position he manned early in his Minor League career, but only recently began revisiting. Manager Mickey Callaway said that McNeil could bounce around the infield, and even the outfield, in Flushing.
"We feel comfortable with him at multiple positions now," Callaway said. "That was kind of a goal of the last couple of weeks, was to kind of hone on a couple more positions, to give us more options." (DiComo - mlb.com - 7/24/18)
Clustered in a rack on one end of the Mets' dugout, different players' bats are typically identifiable only by the numbers stuck to their knobs and the names on the barrels. But one group of bats, belonging to Jeff McNeil, stands out.
Unlike nearly every other player in Major League Baseball, McNeil uses a bat with no knob. Instead of mushrooming out near the bottom, McNeil's lumber widens gradually toward the end. Although his bats are of average size—34 inches, 32 ounces—McNeil says the unorthodox weight distribution gives him more control.
"It just feels lighter because it's so balanced," McNeil said. "The weight's throughout the bat. It's not all in the barrel."McNeil initially began using the model in 2016, when Mets Minor League hitting coordinator Lamar Johnson handed them out to a group of Minor Leaguers. Instantly, McNeil liked the feel of his, hitting a home run in one of his first at-bats with it. He used it exclusively from that point forward. (Anthony DiComo - MLB.com - Aug. 4, 2018)
2018 season : McNeil was never a top prospect, and when he arrived in the big leagues, he first drew attention for his unusual knobless bat. But since he took over at second base following the Asdrubal Cabrera trade, he's been a revelation at the plate, commanding attention for his outstanding contact ability and all-around hitting prowess. McNeil hasn't slowed down, either,
Jeff came up to the Mets on July 24, 2018, and immediately began doing what he has done since he started in Rookie level in 2013. McNeil hit. In this home run time in baseball, he has sprayed line drives all over the field and by the end of the season he had hit .329 for the Mets. It should have surprised no one. He had hit .329 all the way back in Kingsport. He had hit .300 pretty much everywhere. He is the best hitter for average in baseball right now that nobody talks very much about, at least outside New York.
Since the day McNeil got into the lineup with the Mets last July, there is one player with more than 200 at-bats who has a higher average than McNeil’s .349. That player is Christian Yelich. Yelich is nine points higher, at .359. That is how good McNeil has been since his debut. He is a throwback contact hitter out of the past. Once he got into the Mets’ lineup, nobody could get him out.
The least surprised person in the ballpark about all this seems to be McNeil himself. He’s not arrogant. He just knows what he can do, mostly because he’s been doing it since he signed his first professional contract. He works the count. He hits the ball where it’s pitched. And keeps hitting.
“Every level of the Minor Leagues, I’ve hit the ball hard,” McNeil said. “When I got here [to the Major Leagues], nothing changed.”
Even with his lefthanded, line-drive swing, McNeil has never been treated like a phenom. But he made Mets fans pay attention, almost right away. In a lost season when the Mets seemed to stop hitting for months after an 11-1 start, McNeil came up the Minor Leagues and was on first base every time you looked up. (Lupica - mlb.com -4/18/19)
If Jeff held any lingering hope of letting his “Flying Squirrel” nickname fade into obscurity, he abandoned it before a live national audience on April 30, 2019. During an interview, McNeil grinned, laughed and admitted to the moniker, which he has had since college. At the time, a teammate thought he looked like a flying squirrel, diving all over the field. The nickname followed him to pro ball and eventually to the Majors, where McNeil’s play has served only to highlight it in bold.
McNeil’s second hit (of four on the day), a bunt to the right side of the infield with two outs and a man on third, revealed his inner squirrel. (DiComo - mlb.com - 4/30/19)
July 16, 2019: McNeil received the MLB Players Alumni Association "Heart and Hustle" award for the Mets. This esteemed award honors active players who demonstrate a passion for the game of baseball and best embody the values, spirit and traditions of the game. The Heart and Hustle Award is also the only award in Major League Baseball that is voted on by former players.
July 26, 2019: McNeil makes his push for a puppy with a three-run blast. During the Mets batting practice, representatives from the North Shore Animal League set up a pen near the Mets’ dugout to house a group of puppies up for adoption. The Long Island-based rescue and adoption organization does this every year to raise awareness for puppies seeking a home. When Jeff McNeil wandered over to meet the dogs, he became so smitten with one that he grabbed his cell phone and started a video chat with his wife, Tatiana, asking her if she would be willing to add a third member to their household.
“She’s really smart!” McNeil pleaded to his wife, knowing that she would be responsible for tending to the pooch when the Mets go on the road.
A few hours later, McNeil hit a three-run homer in the Mets’ 6-3 win over the Pirates, which he believes will help his cause.
“Hitting a home run after holding a puppy, I think it gives me a little bargaining chip,” McNeil said. “If my wife wants more homers, then we have to get a puppy.”
In fairness, McNeil has 10 home runs this season, the previous nine coming with no puppies in sight. He also has an NL-leading .340 average, 27 doubles and 44 RBIs. But in his eyes, none of that makes up for the lack of a cuddly pet. That could change; McNeil scheduled a follow-up with the North Shore Animal League to meet the puppy again.
If he hits another home run, Tatiana McNeil may not have much of a choice.
“I got in the dugout and said, ‘We’re getting a puppy,’” McNeil said. “Yeah, I was pretty happy. How could you not be happy with a puppy in your hands?”(A DiComo - MLB.com - July 26, 2019)
Sure, being on the road for half the year is a bummer for a ballplayer. They have to sleep in a strange bed, away from their family and friends and all their normal routines. There is one upside, though: all the amazing restaurants they get to try out.
With the Mets set to begin a series with the White Sox in Chicago, All-Stars Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil went to one of the world's most inventive, interesting and absolutely nutty restaurants out there: Alinea.
The restaurant from Chef Grant Achatz is noted for its upscale American cuisine served in the most creative ways possible. Their website refers to a reservation (somewhere between $260-$395, before drinks) as a "multi-sensory, multi-course" meal. That includes intricate platings, liquid nitrogen drinks and a forever-evolving menu. It's basically edible art.
So, when the guys sat down for their meal, McNeil was already overwhelmed. And that was before they reached the famous dessert, where the artistically decorated plate is brought down from the ceiling, and the food is made on the table in a swirl of smoke. (Michael Clair - MLB.com - July 30, 2019)
|Birth City:||Santa Barbara, CA|
|Draft:||Mets #12 - 2013 - Out of Cal State-Long Beach|
McNeil is a good table setter at the top of the order. He works pitchers for a free pass and hits for a good batting average. He is a solid lefthanded hitter.
Jeff gets a 50 for his hit tool. But he has a 20 for his power, or total lack of same. (Editor's note: In 2019 with the Mets, he hit 23 homers.)
A flat-planed, left-handed swing and contact-oriented approach enable Jeff to hit the ball the other way and occasionally find the gaps, but he has bottom-of-the-scale raw power and a slender frame that that does not project to add more. He hit .312 at high Class-A St Lucie in 2015 with a .373 on-base-percentage. (Spring 2016)
McNeil has excellent bat control and an innate ability to make contact.
In 2018, a finally healthy Jeff showed up.“He’s finally healthy and moving around better,” one Mets talent evaluator said. “He could always hit, and now he is moving better than ever before. He has a simple setup at the plate with a good swing and knows the strike zone.”
- September 23, 2018: With each passing game, what Jeff is doing seems like less of a fluke. The prospect of his repeating it grows more plausible. The idea of keeping him as the Mets' regular second baseman in 2019 appears increasingly smart.
It is difficult to deny what McNeil has accomplished over his first two months in the big leagues, rapping out at least three hits in a game eight times. The most recent such effort, when McNeil finished 4-for-5 in the Mets' 8-6 win over the Nationals, reaching base in five of his six plate appearances.
"It's awesome to come up here and have instant success," McNeil said. "I'm 200 at-bats in and still hitting well. It gives me a lot of confidence going into next year." (Di Como - mlb.com)
At a time in the Major Leagues when everybody except the batboy seems to be swinging for the fences. Jeff strikes out about once every nine at-bats. Among players with 300 plate appearances over the last calendar year (April 2018 - April 2019), he is one of just six players striking out in fewer than 10 percent of his plate appearances. He really does seem to have come to this time from another time. He goes from left field to third base. He bats eighth sometimes. Or leadoff. He hits the ball where it’s pitched. And keeps hitting. (Lupico - mlb.com - 4/18/19)
April 30, 2019: So far in his career, Jeff has reached base safely in 71 of his 79 career starts, with 33 multi-hit games and 13 of three or more.
July 1, 2019: McNeil is not only a big leaguer, but an All-Star and the Majors' leading hitter. Hours after learning he had made the National League All-Star roster, McNeil contributed three singles, including a go-ahead two-run knock in the eighth inning, to lead the Mets to an 8-5 win over the Braves at Citi Field. McNeil’s performance gave him sole possession of the Major League batting average lead, at .348
On the McNeil family ball field, there was no lack of incentive to avoid home runs. Balls that went over the right-field fence tended to land in a stream, forcing the pitcher to navigate the fence and wade through water to retrieve them. Beyond that was a farm, with all the hazards that hoofed beasts tend to create.
Ryan McNeil cannot estimate quite how many times he had to hop that fence and ford that stream at the family’s home in Santa Barbara, Calif., but he knows there were many. He and his brother, Jeff, played every day after school, taking turns pitching and hitting.
“Jeff’s the most frustrating hitter I’ve ever faced in my career,” Ryan McNeil, a pitcher for six seasons in the Cubs organization. “He doesn’t give you an easy at-bat, ever. He’s always up there swinging. He’s always up there battling. That’s the last thing you want to see as a pitcher.”
It is the swing that allows McNeil to do what he does. As the left-handed-hitting McNeil sets in the batter’s box, he holds his front leg almost straight, putting the bulk of his weight on his left knee. When the pitch approaches, he lifts his front leg for just a beat, before dropping his shoulder and attacking the ball. Sometimes, he lunges. Sometimes, he slashes. The swings often look defensive, but they carry a certain potency to them, earning him early-career comparisons to Ichiro Suzuki.
But that’s not why McNeil is in the big leagues. That’s not why McNeil was an All-Star. McNeil was an All-Star because of his unique ability to put bat on ball, what his brother, Ryan, calls a lost art. Ten years ago, 42 qualified big leaguers hit at least .300 over a full season. Twenty years ago, 55 players achieved the feat. Halfway through 2019, only 19 players are on pace to make the cut.
“To hit .340, .350, it’s not easy,” said Mets hitting coach Chili Davis. “Pitchers realize that he’s a tough out. Although he doesn’t hit 30 homers, in a lot of situations where you need to put the ball in play, get a hit, he’s a threat.”
For McNeil, that often means trying to punish pitches early in at-bats—he’s slugging .754 when he swings at the first pitch—and defending the strike zone late. With two strikes, McNeil shortens his swing as he becomes hell-bent on contact. It’s an effort that results in loads of foul balls: Among the 259 batters to see at least 250 two-strike pitches this season, McNeil is tied for second in percentage of two-strike pitches he fouls away, according to Statcast data. Less than 13 percent of the two-strike pitches he sees strike him out, which is tied for the 17th-lowest rate among the same group.
“It’s impressive that he’s kept it up,” teammate Pete Alonso said, “but I’m not surprised when I see something a little squirrelly.”
His ability to rank near the league leaders in contact categories while still punishing the balls he does put in play is unique. McNeil is no slap hitter. Among players with at least 600 plate appearances this century, only 19 have a strikeout rate as low as McNeil’s with an isolated power figure—slugging percentage minus batting average—as high as his. The list is topped by Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield and Vladimir Guerrero.
Like his hitting coach, McNeil does not care for the modern implication that batting average doesn’t matter. A high average, McNeil knows, results in high on-base and slugging numbers, which are more well-regarded by modern analytic thinking. His ability to spoil pitches, and thus avoid strikeouts, makes the skill repeatable. The Mets have bought in by making McNeil their leadoff hitter.
“I’m not surprised I put the ball in play so much,” said McNeil, who has only spent the better part of 27 years perfecting the craft.
In Ryan McNeil’s eyes, six years in the Minors may have helped his brother more than he knows, turning him into a complete hitter before he ever stepped foot in the big leagues. So many thousand other pitches on the Wiffle Ball field played a similar role.
“It makes me feel a little better knowing that he beats other people too,” Ryan McNeil said, laughing. “It’s not just me.” (Anthony DiComo-MLB.com-July 22, 2019)
Perhaps the baseball world should have seen this coming. Late at night on July 24, 2018, Jeff approached home plate for the first time as a big leaguer. He swung at the first pitch he saw, lining it into center field for a single.
A career was born that day, if not yet a reputation. McNeil came to the plate 248 times his rookie season, swinging at the first pitch 110 times -- a rate of 44.4 percent, good for 14th in the Majors. A year later, McNeil increased that rate to 50.7 percent, making him the league’s only hitter to swing at the first pitch more often than not. Apparently, not even that was enough to deter pitchers from throwing strike one to him. As the season wore on, McNeil began swinging at the first pitch with increasing frequency, doing so 55.9 percent of the time in September 2019.
It’s a habit that has continued in the spring of 2020. Not only did McNeil swing at the first pitch he saw in Grapefruit League action in February 2020, but he has done so at least once in nearly every game since. Fastballs, changeups, curveballs -- it hasn’t mattered.
“I’ll keep hacking,” McNeil said. “I’ll still walk if they’re going to walk me, but yeah, if I get a good pitch early in the count, I’m going to try to do some damage.”
The habit is one McNeil has had since childhood. That aggression at the plate? It’s natural. “There are so many things that are just natural about him,” Mets hitting coach Chili Davis said. “He’s a natural ballplayer. Those are the kinds of guys that -- they’re here, they’re in the game, but I don’t think you see as many of them anymore because they’re being coached a certain way from Little League on up.”
Under the Mets’ previous front-office regime, the organization implemented a policy at the lower levels of the Minors requiring randomly selected hitters to take a strike in each of their at-bats. The idea was to help young hitters learn the strike zone.
For some, it worked. But for McNeil, it was an annoyance. He recalled frequently working his way into 1-0 or 2-0 counts, only to watch a fastball whiz by right down the middle. It was not until McNeil reached Double-A that the Mets freed him (and others) to swing as he saw fit. Perhaps not surprisingly, McNeil fared better at those levels than in Class A ball, batting .320 at Double-A and Triple-A.
“You only get three strikes,” McNeil said. “I don’t want to give the pitcher one. I know I’m good enough that if it’s in the strike zone, I can usually put a pretty good swing on it and get a hit. So yeah, you only get three strikes I guess, so why waste one?”
Pitchers have caught on, frequently throwing McNeil first-pitch breaking balls and changeups, but he hits those, too -- at this point, he says, he’s come to expect them. Davis quipped that if McNeil is aware of the scouting report against him, he certainly doesn’t care about it.
Asked if he plans to lead the league in first-pitch swinging for a second straight season, McNeil just laughed. “No,” he said. “I’ll lead the league in hitting. I’ll try to do that. That’s a goal.” (DiComo - mlb.com - 3/5/2020)
- 2019 Season: Jeff McNeil, 3B, Mets: He’s penciled in to be the Mets' regular third baseman in 2020 after making 123 starts at five positions in his first full season. He exceeded every expectation with an All-Star season that included 38 doubles, 23 homers and a .916 OPS.
- As of the start of the 2020 season, Jeff's career Major League stats were: .321 batting average, 26 home runs with 94 RBI and 236 hits in 735 at-bats.
Jeff is comfortable playing almost anywhere, with third base being his best spot. He also plays second and shortstop almost equally well, as well as some outfield and first base.
"The more positions I can handle the better off I am," McNeil said. "I can basically play everywhere. I grew up playing shortstop. When I went to college, I played second and left field my freshman year. And then my sophomore and junior year, I played center, second, and some right.
“I feel comfortable wherever they put me, but I’m most comfortable at second and third as of right now.”
McNeil has strong footwork, quick hands and solid range on the infield, though his arm is light to play short everyday. He feels most comfortable at second or third base and can also play the outfield.
Scouts regard Jeff as a strong fundamental player with plus makeup and instincts. He profiles best as a utility player. (Spring 2016)
- Jeff gets a 50 grade for his work at any of the infield positions.
- In 2019 with the Mets, McNeil played second base, third base, left field, and right field. (Baseball-Reference.com - Feb 2020)
- Jeff's speed is his best tool. It rates a 60, so he can steal bases.
April 21, 2016: McNeil was on the D.L. with a sports hernia that required surgery.
May 23-June 4, 2019: Jeff was on the IL with left hamstring strain.
August 13-24, 2019: McNeil was placed on the IL with a strained hamstring. McNeil pulled up in pain just past first base as he attempted to beat out an infield grounder. He grabbed his left hamstring, then walked off the field gingerly alongside manager Mickey Callaway and trainer Joe Golia.
Aug 14, 2019: McNeil received a bit of optimistic news. An MRI revealed that the left hamstring strain he suffered is mild.
Sept 25, 2019: Jeff was on the IL with right distal ulna fracture. He will miss the final four games of New York’s season. Batting in the sixth inning, McNeil dropped his bat in pain when Marlins reliever Josh Smith struck him on the wrist with an 89 mph fastball.
- Oct. 2-Nov 4, 2019: McNeil had surgery on his broken right wrist to repair his right distal ulnar fracture.