Coming off a 2015 season in which he hit .312/.373/.382 for the St. Lucie Mets and was named a mid-season and post-season All-Star by the Florida State League, Jeff McNeil still knew he had to do more to impress the Mets.
McNeil, Mets 12th rounder from the 2013 draft, spent the offseason (after playing in the Arizona Fall League) adding some muscle to an athletic but thin frame in hopes of adding pop at the plate.
The left-handed batter hit a home run in his first game of the 2016 season for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. Unfortunately, his season would end after only two more games.
He wound up needing surgery for a double sports hernia and while during his MRI they found a tear in his hip labrum that required season-ending surgery.
McNeil’s 2017 season would get a late April start, but yet again he blasted a home run in his first game. He would post an impressive .864 OPS for St. Lucie before getting promoted to Triple-A Las Vegas in August. He struggled in his first taste of AAA baseball with a .661 OPS in 18 games.
After getting into five big league spring games this year, McNeil was sent back to Binghamton to get a chance to play everyday in the infield. What did he do in his first game? Yup, you guessed it, another homer. Minor injury would follow that put him on 7-day DL.
He was back in a week and hit two homers on April 17 and would finish the month hitting .279/.371/.623.
Then came May 2018 for McNeil, the breakout offensive month he has been waiting so many year for. He hit two home runs on May 5, and then a week later would homer in the eighth inning against the Portland Sea Dogs to cap off his first professional cycle.
McNeil went just 1-for-4 with two RBI the day following the cycle. Then came the power surge, he homered in four straight games from May 15 to May 18 and hit his 12th homer of the season on May 20. His 12 homers are tied with teammate Peter Alonso and Blue Jays prospect Cavan Biggio (son of Craig) for the Eastern League Lead.
Not only has the versatile McNeil been one of best hitters in the Mets minor leagues but his 215 wRC+ ranks fourth among all of minor league baseball behind Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Jabari Blash.
For the season, McNeil is hitting .331/.414/.704 with 11 doubles, three triples, 12 homers, 38 runs scored (he normally bats second with Alonso third) and 32 RBI in 162 plate appearances.
Even more impressive given his power surge is the fact that he’s struck out only 10.5% of the time this season. He’s the only player in the minor leagues with double-digit homers and less than 20 strikeouts (17). He also has a .310 BABIP which is right around normal to illustrate he’s not simply getting lucky. He’s also leading all Mets minor leaguers with a 51.2% flyball rate.
McNeil has spent most of the season for the Rumble Ponies at second base (27 games). He has also played third base (9 games) and shortstop (3 games). During his pro career he has experience at every position except for pitcher and catcher.
He is 26-years-old so you won’t find him on any top prospect lists. McNeil’s combination of power, plate discipline, versatility and athleticism makes him an intriguing player nonetheless with a good possibility of being a major league utility player at the very least.
MMO – First off, thanks for taking the time to do this and congrats on the great start to the season.
Jeff – No problem and thank you.
MMO – You’ve missed large portions of the last couple of seasons due to injury, how were you able to fight through those rough times and what has been a big key for you staying healthy this season?
Jeff – Ya it’s been a tough past few seasons. Last year was really frustrating with a quad injury but I’m healthy now and feeling good. This offseason I was in physical therapy and working with a personal trainer in order to come into camp and the season as strong as possible.
MMO – Obviously you’re having a breakout season offensively. What can you attribute your great start too and how does it feel after struggling to stay healthy?
Jeff – I think it’s just me being healthy and strong. My swing feels great and I worked hard in the offseason working on pulling the ball in the air which I’ve been able to do so far this season. It feels great playing everyday and feeling good.
MMO – When did you realize you needed to start lifting the ball more and did analytics play a role at all?
Jeff – I agree that most extra base hits come from hitting the ball hard with a good launch angle but it’s not all I’m trying to do at the plate. I’ve always believed I’ve hit the ball in the air the last few seasons but didn’t play at very hitter friendly ballparks so the power numbers weren’t there as much. Also I am much bigger and stronger then I was in low a and high a so those balls that i hit well in the air are starting to go over the fence instead of being outs.
MMO – Were you aware that you needed a home run headed into your last at-bat to get the cycle last week? And was that the first one ever?
Jeff – Ya I was definitely aware of it. I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit and tried to hit it as hard as I could and squared it up. That was a pretty fun trip around the bases. I hit for the cycle one other time in Scout ball when I was 17 but that’s the only other time I have done it.
MMO – Recent article talked about you and Alonso challenging each other in BP, who’s come out the winner more times and who has hit the longest home run?
Jeff – He usually gets me, Alonso has amazing power and it’s fun to watch him take BP.
MMO – Do you think having a hitter of his caliber bat behind you has helped you see more fastballs?
Jeff – Maybe early on in the season but recently I’ve been getting a lot of breaking balls and have had to focus on what pitch I am looking for in an at bat and not missing that pitch.
MMO – What stat or stats do you pay attention to as a player you evaluate your own performance?
Jeff – Usually on base percentage, average, and slugging percentage. I’m usually batting near the top of the order so my job is to get on base whether that is with a base hit or a walk and I’ll let guys like Alonso and Patrick Mazeika hitting behind me drive me in.
MMO – You’ve played mostly second base this year despite having experience all over the diamond, is that where you are most comfortable?
Jeff – Ya, second is probably where I’m most comfortable but whatever position I’m playing I’m always pretty comfortable.
MMO – What is it like playing with Tim Tebow? What does his presence add to the team on and off the field?
Jeff – It’s awesome having him around. He’s a great guy and does a lot for the community. It’s also been nice playing in front of crowds that are larger than normal.
MMO – You’ve played every spot but pitcher and catcher, have there ever been extra inning situations where it was talked about playing each spot? Have you pitched at all in the past?
Jeff – Never been in a situation like that. I have had some experience catching in the past when I was in High School and playing in Scout ball. My brother is the pitcher in the family so never needed to pitch much when we grew up playing on the same team.
MMO – Have you gotten the chance to face your brother competitively? If so, how did you fare?
Jeff – I got to face him when I was playing collegiate summer ball for the Santa Barbara foresters and he was still in hs. I got a few hits off him but he also got me a few times.
MMO – What kind of adjustments did you make this offseason that has helped with your breakout season?
Jeff – I didn’t make to many changes with my swing. I hit the ball for power in the limited time I played last year so I knew I just needed to come into the season strong and the power numbers will be there.
MMO – What do you do before each game or series to prepare for the starters and likely relievers you’re going to face?
Jeff – We watch video of the pitcher and have the track man information about what types of pitches they have and how often they throw them. That kind of information is great to know going into an at bat against a pitcher we have never faced before. It’s been nice the last few weeks we have played teams we have seen a lot so we have seen all of their pitchers multiple times.
MMO – Does your approach change at all when you get into an opportunity with runners in scoring position?
Jeff – Not really. I’m just up there looking to get a pitch I can drive and do damage with.
MMO – What’s your favorite minor league ballpark and/or city that you’ve come across so far?
Jeff – I think the best ballpark I’ve been to is definitely Hartford. The stadium is beautiful and they sold out every game so it was a great environment to play in. It’s also a great place to hit which is always nice.
MMO – What has it been like working with Pascucci on a daily basis? How does it help having a former big leaguer on the staff?
Jeff – It’s awesome working with him. He was my hitting coach in low a as well and I had a good season with him there as well so I was excited to work with him again this year.
MMO – What do you think you need to improve on to take the next step as a player and make it to the major leagues?
Jeff – If you would have asked me before the season started I would have said I needed to work on driving the ball and hit for some power but that is there this year. I just need to be consistent throughout the year and everything will take care of itself.
MMO – Is this the best stretch of baseball you’ve ever played?
Jeff – Ya, it’s probably the best stretch of baseball I’ve ever played before. I feel locked in at the plate and I’m getting good pitches to hit and I am not missing them right now.
MMO – Thanks for your time, Jeff. Good luck the rest of the season and hopefully you get the well deserved promotion soon.
Jeff – Thank you, I appreciate it!