John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
A month ago a handful of the Mets' top scouts were watching a high school All-Star game at Long Beach State in California, the home field of one Jeff McNeil in college, and in that setting they couldn't help but marvel at the transformation of their former 12th-round draft pick.
"Jeff didn't hit a home run in his entire college career," Mets' scouting director Marc Tramuta said by phone, "so we're sitting there wondering if there has ever been a player with zero home runs in college who might hit 20 in a big-league season.
"Then the same bunch of us were texting about it when it happened (Wednesday night). It's crazy."
Yes, even in a season when home run numbers around the majors are at an all-time high, McNeil's power surge has been an eye-popping development.
As one long-time scout told me on Thursday, "Anybody who tells you they saw this coming is probably trying to sell you a bridge somewhere. There's not a scout on the planet that predicted this. At best you saw him as a utility player."
It's not only scouts who are flabbergasted. When McNeil hit his 20th Wednesday night with a Citi Field moon shot that Statcast measured at 444 feet, long-distance expert Pete Alonso wasn't buying it.
"When they put it on the scoreboard Pete was laughing," McNeil told reporters." He was like, 'there's no way.' I was giving him a hard time: I go, 'yeah, I got that.' "
The disbelief is understandable. Never mind college, as recently as 2015, McNeil hit only one home run over 545 plate appearances in the Class-A and Double-A minors.
Major injuries the next two seasons prompted him to add weight and strength to his 6-foot-1 frame, and the power has followed, reaching a new level the last couple of months, as McNeil has hit 13 home runs since July 14, despite missing 10 days due to a hamstring strain.
McNeil has talked about standing taller at the plate, as advised by hitting coach Chili Davis, but one scout noticed he's moved closer to the plate as well in recent days, perhaps as a response to a mini-slump that saw him trying to pull everything and regularly grounding out to the right side.
"Instead of hooking the ball on the ground," the scout said, "he's meeting it out in front because he moved closer to the plate, and he's hitting it in the air."
Sounds something like what Daniel Murphy did in 2015, under the tutelage of Kevin Long, when he transformed himself into more of a slugger and for a few years became one of the most productive hitters in baseball.
"Murphy moved up on the plate so he could pull the ball in the air, even the outside pitch," one scout said. "And that's what McNeil is doing right now."
"Murphy was still quick enough to get to the ball inside, and that's the key because pitchers see a guy up on the plate and they're going to try to bust him in. McNeil will have to adjust to that, but his hands are really quick so he should be able to handle it.
"The only question is if he falls in love with the home run and he becomes less of an elite contact hitter by selling out for power. That could cost him in batting average, but he's got such great hand-eye coordination that I think he'll always be able to adjust."
That bears watching, to be sure, as McNeil has hit .285 in the second half of the season, compared to .349 in the first half. Even so, the power obviously brings greater production, as evidenced by a better OPS., 951 to .917, mostly because his slugging average has jumped significantly.
Finally, if Murphy is the model, well, the additional power sure didn't harm his batting average. After his Ruthian-like 2015 postseason for the Mets, Murphy posted the two highest averages of his career, .348 and .322, with the Nationals in 2016 and '17 while also having his best power years -- 25 and 23 home runs, respectively.
By then Murphy was in his 30s while McNeil, despite a relatively late start to his big-league career, is 27 and apparently still ascending.
"I think he can hit for power and still hit around .330," one scout said. "He's that skilled in recognizing pitches and putting the bat on the ball in any part of the strike zone."
So after all the talk of McNeil as a future batting champion, perhaps the power will make him an MVP candidate in years to come, as it did for Murphy, who finished second to Kris Bryant in 2016.
On the other hand, as much as scouts love McNeil, they caution that they need to see if MLB reacts to the over-the-top home run totals this season and makes sure the baseballs aren't flying like golf balls in 2020.
Even in that context, however, McNeil's 13 home runs in 45 second-half games make the case that he's still just tapping into his newfound power, offering all sorts of intrigue as to exactly how dynamic a hitter he'll be over the next few seasons.
Whatever that finished product turns out to be, the Mets' scouts deserve credit for taking a shot with a skinny, slap-hitting college infielder. But as they were reminded by their recent visit to Long Beach State, where McNeil never hit a ball over the fence, there are some things that nobody can predict.