Hitting for average is seemingly a lost art in today's MLB.
"These guys (current players) are entirely focused on power, things like exit velocity," a minor-league hitting instructor recently told me. "They almost never talk about batting average."
And then there's Jeff McNeil...
"It's always been important to me," McNeil said during spring training last year.
Since making his big-league debut in July 2018, McNeil has the third-best batting average in the National League trailing only Christian Yelich and Anthony Rendon.
It would be an understatement to say batting average is on the decline in baseball...
In 1999, 28 NL players hit at least .300, and in 2009, that number dropped to just 17 players, one of which was David Wright (.307) and another was Luis Castillo (.302). And 10 years after that, last season, McNeil was one of just nine NL players -- nine -- to bat over .300.
"Batting average matters," I heard McNeil say last spring, after which I heard him say the same throughout the year.
In an April 2019 article for FanGraphs.com, Jay Jaffe looked at 21,000 player-seasons with at least 300 plate appearances and, after normalizing strike outs and batting average, McNeil appeared alongside Ichiro, Barry Larkin, Barry Bonds and three seasons from Wade Boggs, among others...
"He rarely strikes out, he has an advanced two-strike approach and -- if the game situation calls for it -- he can adjust his stance to pull a home run to right field," a rival front office member told me this past winter, at a time when rumors had teams inquiring about McNeil's availability in trades.
Most hitters these days are gamblers with a bat, the same source explained.
The majority of the league is taking pitches and big cuts, waiting to barrel up a ball when the opposing pitcher makes a mistake. If the hitter strikes out, so be it, eventually during the game he'll connect and it will all have been worth it...
McNeil, on the other hand, is among a select few batters who swing at more than half of the pitches thrown to him, during which he'll foul off one ball after another until he gets a pitch to hit.
"It sucks to strike out," McNeil had said. "I'm a grinder, I put the ball in play, and I'm confident I can slap the ball to any part of the field."
He's just as likely to rip a double to the right-center field gap as he is to slowly guide a base hit just over the head of the second baseman. In this sense, he's reminiscent of the game's best contact hitters.
As recently as this past summer, McNeil was mostly a mystery to baseball fans...
Drafted in the 12th round in 2013, he rolled along during the first few years of his career, including leading the Florida State League with a .373 on-base percentage in 2015. However, his professional career went totally off the tracks starting in 2016, when he needed surgery for a hernia, surgery on his hip, and in 2017, losing time with a groin injury. As a result, he played in just 51 games those two seasons, which pushed him out of the team's top 20 prospect list from Baseball America.
In an effort to remain healthy by increasing his lower body strength, McNeil altered his swing and found a stroke of power that got the organization's attention.
McNeil hit zero home runs during his college career. As a pro, he had just nine through the 2017 season.
However, in 2018, during 88 games played in Double A and Triple A, McNeil hit 19 home runs, while also batting above .320 in both locations and striking out just 42 times. He was promoted to the Mets that summer hasn't looked back...
For me, I can't help looking back, though. And, when I do, I see a bit Boggs and a little Don Mattingly. And then I come back to McNeil, who I'm happy to say may be the only player in baseball approaching the game like those guys did in the 80s.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is a senior writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. His book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime.