Jeff McNeil is Proof that Hitting for Average is Still Valuable in Major League Baseball

We’re in a day and age of Major League Baseball where cranking home runs seems like the only thing that gets the media and fans excited. Balls are leaving the yard at a higher rate than ever before. I don’t remember the last time where this many players had at least 20 home runs just after the All-Star break. It almost seems like most big leaguers are more consumed with hitting long balls than actually hitting for average, which was once a very important part of the game; and frankly, it still should be.

Then there’s New York Mets utility man Jeff McNeil. A guy with an old-school approach, McNeil currently leads the majors with a .342 batting average. He has hit just nine home runs this year, but his ability to make consistent contact on a daily basis is what has made him such a good hitter. This is just his first full big-league season too, after getting called up for his major-league debut last July, where he appeared in 63 games. McNeil tore the cover off the ball from the get-go last season, hitting .329 in 225 at-bats.

The 27-year old has struck out just 47 times in 330 at-bats this season. This means that just 13 percent of the time, he’s heading back to the dugout via the strikeout. The MLB average in strikeout percentage is 23. In today’s game, a lot of players are okay with going down swinging if they get a good hack in, considering most guys are usually trying to go yard. Strikeouts are up this year for pitchers, along with the number of home runs.

But McNeil doesn’t care, he just continues to swing the bat fearlessly and spray balls all over the field.

Using the Entire Field

McNeil has a very simple plate approach, with minimal movement in his front foot. He has a small leg kick to shift his weight back, but keeps his hands relatively still. McNeil slaps the ball sometimes when behind in the count, almost like Ichiro Suzuki used to do in his prestigious career as one of the best contact hitters of all-time. McNeil doesn’t try to do too much, instead, he just hits the ball where it’s pitched and gets on base.

He does a very good job of hitting the ball all over the field as well. Out of his 112 hits this season, 53 have been pulled to right field, 37 to center field, and 22 to the opposite field. Below is a spray chart of McNeil’s hits this season. As you can see, they’re quite evenly distributed.

There isn’t a lot of players in the majors who can consistently hit the ball the other way. McNeil actually hits the ball the opposite way at a very high rate, especially in the bottom quadrant of the strike zone, right down the middle, and on the outer half:

As you can see in the graph below, almost half of his hits have come against pitches on the outer half of the plate:

It hasn’t seemed to matter what pitches are thrown against him. Whether it’s a 95 mph heater or a breaking ball, he’s squaring it up. McNeil is hitting a mind-boggling .351 against fastballs and .364 against off-speed offerings. When it comes to breaking balls, he’s still batting .295.

From a defensive standpoint, this guy can play all over the field. McNeil has played second base, left field, right field, and third base this season for the Mets. His versatility just adds to his value as an all-around ballplayer.

He may not be a threat to hit a pitch 400-plus feet, but McNeil is the type of hitter that pitchers hate. He always puts the ball in play, puts pressure on the defense because he’s fast, and can spray the ball all over the field. He’s a traditional hitter that we don’t see much of anymore.

McNeil is refreshing to watch at the plate. There’s no swinging for the fences. He waits for his pitch, and with simplicity, hits baseballs consistently hard on a line, or on the ground through the holes. We need more Jeff McNeil’s back in baseball. He plays the game the right way.

If McNeil continues to rake, he could be the first Met to win a batting title since Jose Reyes took home the National League batting title in 2011, when he hit .337.

If the Mets are looking for a reason to be optimistic about the future, along with Pete Alonso, they should look to Jeff McNeil.

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