Jeff McNeil
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Somehow, New York Mets pure hitter Jeff McNeil is still underrated. How is this possible in a baseball land aching for classical sticks? 

Obviously, Jeff McNeil is really good. But somehow, he’s still underrated.

Despite the fact that he’s often talked up as a great hitter, but not quite a superstar, McNeil is already on his way to being one of the best pure hitters in New York Mets history.

Here’s a simple question: How many power/contact/on-base threats have the Mets had, in their entire history, better than Jeff McNeil?

Four answers come to mind. Mike Piazza was better, as was David Wright in his prime. Edgardo Alfonzo at his peak was probably better, and John Olerud, in his brief Mets career, outshone McNeil as well.

But is there anyone else?

Through the first two years of his career, McNeil is slashing .321/.383/.513. Last season, he was even better: .318/.384/.531, with 23 home runs.

Carlos Beltran put up an .869 OPS as a Met. That’s really good. So far, McNeil is better.

Darryl Strawberry is a Mets offensive icon, but he didn’t make contact like McNeil does, and his career OPS as a Met was .878. McNeil is better.

Howard Johnson had three 30/30 seasons. McNeil is better. Easily.

Obviously, there are all sorts of caveats. McNeil has only played a season and a half so far, and he could regress at any time. He doesn’t have as much power as Strawberry or Johnson had, at least so far; likewise, he doesn’t get on base quite as much as Olerud or Piazza. But it’s the combination of various offensive abilities that makes McNeil special.

Say McNeil continues to hit like he did in 2019 for a few years, or even improves. If he can string together four or five seasons at his current production levels, he’ll have a strong case for being the third-best all-around hitter in Mets history, behind only Wright and Piazza.

And while some surface-level metrics might indicate that McNeil is due for regression, a deeper look at his statistics tells a more interesting story. McNeil’s 2019 season, it turns out, was even more impressive than it seemed on paper.

For McNeil, the first half of 2019 seemed like a combination of skill and a lot of luck. He batted .349/.409/.509, good for a .917 OPS. But his unsustainable .385 BABIP indicated that he was probably going to fall back to earth.

Sure enough, McNeil’s BABIP in the second half of 2019 was .266. A number that low makes it incredibly difficult to perform on offense. Even Rhys Hoskins, who walked 116 times in 2019, could only put up a .819 OPS, because his BABIP was .267.

In the second half of 2019, with his .266 BABIP, Jeff McNeil hit .276/.353/.561, for a .914 OPS. His BABIP fell more than 100 points; his OPS barely changed at all.

It’s not entirely clear what caused the change. McNeil’s Batting Average and OBP fell in the second half, but his power exploded: he slugged .561 and hit 16 home runs in 57 games. Maybe it was just luck, or maybe McNeil made adjustments to his swing to improve his power.

Either way, he’s coming off a second-half in which he put up a .914 OPS with a .266 BABIP. If those results came from permanent adjustments to McNeil’s approach, Mets fans should be beyond excited.

Why? Because if McNeil’s approach at the plate can wring a .914 OPS out of a .266 BABIP, imagine what he’ll do if that .266 becomes .300? What if he hits the ball hard and gets lucky, and his BABIP climbs to .330?

Pete Alonso, LFGM T-Shirt

Of course, that’s an optimistic version of McNeil’s future. It could be that his entire 2019 season more or less represents his true level of offensive output. He’s done it for almost two seasons now. He’s proven that he can hit the ball hard enough to all fields to sustain a high average and walk enough to keep his OBP high. And he seems entirely capable of repeating his 23-home-run performance, at least based on the eye test.

It comes down to two simple premises. First, there’s no reason that McNeil won’t continue to hit at his 2019 levels for the next several years. Second, only two players in Mets history, David Wright and Mike Piazza, have had careers as good as several years’ worth of 2019 Jeff McNeil.

Players like McNeil don’t come around often. A superb power/contact/on-base threat, who’s even a plus defender wherever the Mets stick him. For Mets fans, watching McNeil play every day, and having him under team control until 2025, is an incredible privilege.

Batting average near .320, OBP above .380, slugging percentage above .500, 20+ home run power. Those are the numbers of a franchise great. McNeil may sometimes be overlooked, but the Mets have rarely seen better.

I have followed New York sports passionately for almost my entire life, since I went to Shea Stadium in 2004 and saw Jae Seo lose 8-1 to the Pirates. At journalism school, I once missed covering a Land Use Committee meeting to write about Jacob deGrom's last start of the year.