John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
As Jeff McNeil is already making it clear that last year was no fluke, that he's going to hit in the big leagues, and probably for a long time, he's become a favorite topic of conversation among scouts.
Part of it is his throwback approach, choking up on a knob-less bat, making contact to all fields, which appeals to the purist nature of scouts who for the most part have disdain for the home run-or-strike out style that is so prevalent in today's game.
And part of it is that scouts enjoy a little gossip to help get them through the grind of a long season.
So it is that when I ask a scout about McNeil, often the conversation at some point includes a return question
"Was he really in the Cano trade?"
Yes, that little tidbit about McNeil apparently being part of the Mets' trade package for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz until someone wised up last November becomes more fascinating with every knock he adds to his impressive total so far.
On Saturday, that total reached 100 hits during his young big-league career, as McNeil reached that milestone in the fewest plate at-bats in Mets' history.
Fittingly the 100th hit was an infield single, as the lefty-hitting McNeil smacked an outside-corner curveball from Miles Mikolas toward the traditional shortstop position, much of which was vacated as part of a semi-shift, leaving Paul DeJong with no shot at throwing out McNeil when he backhanded the ball just beyond the dirt of the infield.
Indeed, McNeil is becoming an analytic nightmare for the opposition, using the whole field to the extent that it's difficult to shift at all on him.
"Even if his spray chart says he's more likely to pull the ball on the ground, you have to put that percentage in some context, because he's going to hit the ball where it's pitched," says one scout. "So you can shift on him but you're relying on your pitcher to pitch him a certain way, and pitchers aren't going to want to get in patterns or lock themselves into using one side of the plate against a hitter like him.
"I hear people ask all the time why hitters don't beat the shift by going the other way. The reason is that it's hard to do against 96mph fastballs. Today's hitters have enough trouble just making contact against all the high velocity, and the breaking stuff too.
"McNeil has exceptional hand-eye coordination and he uses that to greater advantage by choking up, giving him a longer look at the pitch, and still being quick enough to get to an inside fastball. It's an overused term now but he has a knack for getting the barrel of the bat on the ball, and that's more valuable now than ever with all the strikeouts in the game."
The proof is in the numbers. After going 1-for-3 Saturday, McNeil was hitting .388, the second-highest average in the NL and fourth-highest in the majors. In addition, he'd struck out but seven times in 75 plate appearances -- the only players in the majors with fewer strikeouts and that many plate appearances were Mike Trout and Maikel Franco.
The one drawback is that McNeil hasn't hit a home run yet, and it remains to be seen if his big power jump in the minors last year, when he hit 19 between Double-A and Triple-A, will translate to the majors. He hit three in his 63 games with the Mets last season.
The comp I've heard most from scouts is that of a young Daniel Murphy, the feeling being that McNeil eventually will hit 15-20 home runs a year as he becomes more familiar with big-league pitching.
The most intriguing comp, meanwhile, came from a long-time scout who likened McNeil to the lefthanded-hitting version of Pete Rose, baseball's all-time hits leader, and believes he'll hit in the .320 range every year, occasionally high enough to win batting titles.
"If he's disciplined enough to stick with what he does best, just make good contact and use the whole field, I think he could be among the league leaders in hitting most years," the scout said. "The game has gotten away from valuing batting average in favor of on-base and power, but then every year we wind up talking about how important it is in the post-season to make contact against elite pitching.
"That's why, to me, the high-average hitters are more valuable now because of the shifts and all the strikeouts. I think the Mets struck gold with this kid."
Which brings us back to the question of how close the Mets came to including McNeil in that trade with the Mariners last November.
Not surprisingly, I haven't found anyone on the Mets' side who will admit even privately that they were ever going to part with McNeil. They make the case that his name leaked out because the Mariners wanted him badly before finally being satisfied with getting another prized hitting prospect, last year's first round draft pick, outfielder Jared Kelenic, as part of the package.
Still, at least some informed people in the industry believe the Mets only pulled McNeil back after the outcry among fans and media to his name surfacing in reports as the deal got close.
And obviously the Mets weren't completely sold on the rookie, who hit .328 after his July call-up last season, or they wouldn't have signed Jed Lowrie with the intention of turning McNeil into an outfielder.
For that matter, even though McNeil has looked very good defensively at third base, it remains to be seen how the Mets will make the puzzle pieces fit when Todd Frazier and Lowrie return from injury.
McNeil has looked shaky at times in the outfield, but he'll almost certainly have to play his share of left field. And if Yoenis Cespedes ever comes back, there just won't be enough positions to go around for everybody.
But if anything seems certain at the moment, it's that McNeil will be playing somewhere every day. Surely the Mets wouldn't make the mistake of undervaluing Daniel Murphy again, even if it's the latter-day version.