Underrated isn’t the first word that comes to mind with a player coming off their first All-Star appearance. In the case of the Mets’ Jeff McNeil, however, it might just be the right one.
Playing in a big market and on a fringe contender, he doesn’t fit the usual bill of a player that falls into that underrated bracket. The Mets reside in the shadow of the New York Yankees, though, and McNeil is far from the most well-known player on his own club, let alone in New York.
After breaking through as a second baseman in 2018, McNeil was forced into a utility role, something he embraced. He hit so well that the Mets had to find a spot for him in the line-up, resulting in considerable time at both outfielder spots as well as second and third base. He racked up 567 plate appearances in his second year.
Only eight players posted a better wRC+ than McNeil’s 143 last season. His .318 batting average was good for sixth in the Majors, ahead of Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Michael Brantley. He slugged .531 too, a 60-point increase from his display in 2018.
Fangraphs projections for McNeil in 2020 don’t expect a repeat performance. ZiPS is the most generous, projecting a 122 wRC+, while the others have him in the 110s.
A 12th-round pick and never a highly-touted prospect, McNeil is used to exceeding expectations. His power surge in 2019, while maintaining a low strikeout rate (he was 14th in the league in strikeout percentage), showed the sort of progress even the most optimistic of Mets fans would have deemed improbable.
McNeil was legitimately an elite hitter in 2019. He’s a serviceable, albeit below-average, outfield defender. That versatility is invaluable to the Mets.
There are no standout physical tools with McNeil. There’s a bit of speed there, but nothing for scouts to get giddy about, he doesn’t walk much, and defensively he’s unspectacular. What he does do, though, he does brilliantly. He’s in the 79th percentile in whiff rate, he rarely strikes out, he drives the ball.
McNeil makes great use of the skills he has despite a lack of raw power. Without a settled position for whenever the 2020 season starts (if it does), McNeil might not appear on ‘top 10 lists’, but he deserves to be.
The scepticism in the sustainability of his 2020 performance is understandable. What we saw in 2019 should give the Mets great hope that McNeil can be a key component in their line-up once again, and remain one of MLB’s best, and most underrated, hitters.
It’s easy to forget about McNeil alongside Michael Conforto, Cano and Pete Alonso. If the Mets are to be a serious contender in the seasons to come, he has as big a role to play as anyone.