By Jared Greenspan
(Photo: Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports)
*All statistics used are through 8/18
As the Mets’ woefully under-performing offense sinks further into the abyss, there is plenty of blame to go around — just ask Steve Cohen.
That includes Jeff McNeil, whose season-long struggles are beginning to grow more pronounced. McNeil entered New York’s weekend series against the Dodgers hitting just .175/.230/.281 in August, contributing in no small part to his team’s 5-12 record this month.
McNeil’s lack of production is strikingly uncharacteristic for such a pure hitter. Since breaking into the majors in July 2018, he has established himself as one of the sport’s best hitters. His .319 batting average from 2018-2020 ranks second amongst all qualified hitters, while his .375 wOBA over that same time period is good for 18th, tied with a pair of perennial MVP candidates in Bryce Harper and Jose Ramirez.
Yet shades of that version of McNeil have been few and far between this season. In fairness, he has battled through fits and bursts, missing five weeks with a hamstring strain that occurred in mid-May, just as he seemed to be rounding into form following a dreadful April. Even now, he’s not entirely healthy, hampered by a bout of leg fatigue that seems poised to linger.
Still, for a player of McNeil’s caliber, the poor performance is startling. Where has it all gone wrong?
1) He’s hitting the ball hard, but not exactly smart
For all of his success, McNeil has never been atop the exit velocity charts during his major league career, maxing out at the 41st percentile in 2019. Yet, when prodded to dissect his prowess at the plate, McNeil resorted to hard contact.
“Every level of the minor leagues, I’ve hit the ball hard,” McNeil told MLB.com in 2019. “When I got here, nothing changed.”
That’s not exactly true, nor is there a definite correlation between hard contact and success, but more on that in a minute. McNeil’s quote, and conviction, is actually most applicable to his 2021 numbers.
While this season has been a nightmare for McNeil, some of his surface-level statistics paint a confounding picture. He’s actually hitting the ball harder than he ever has at the major-league level. His 36.6% hard-hit rate is both a career-high and 10% greater than last season’s mark, which bottomed out in the fifth percentile. Similarly, his barrel rate is 5.3%, good for another career high. Both of those numbers would presumably bode well for a hitter’s success. Yet with McNeil, that’s not the case.
Fewer players are generating less value from their hard-hit balls than McNeil. Of 186 qualified hitters, McNeil’s wOBA off his hard-hit balls — those with an exit velocity greater than 95 mph — is the fifth lowest. So, while he may be producing hard contact at a career-best rate, he has nothing to show for it.
Similarly, McNeil’s 2021 production off hard-hit balls is a career nadir, as the table below indicates.
So why is this happening? Well, of McNeil’s hard contact, 40.6% of such batted balls are resulting in ground balls, a career-high. These ground balls are a graveyard for hitters, and amidst the launch angle revolution, McNeil is suddenly trending backwards.
In essence, McNeil’s hard contact is deceptive. This helps to explain why his sweet spot percentage is just 37.2%, a few decimals away from a career-worst. While this might seem to contradict his hard-hit rate, it actually makes sense, given that the bulk of his hard contact is coming on the ground, rather than in the air. A player’s sweet spot percentage represents the percentage of batted balls hit with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees, which is discovered to be the ideal range. Though he may be hitting more hard contact than ever before, he’s hitting less of the sort of hard contact that is most conducive to success.
Just look at the discrepancy between the launch angles of his hard-hit balls from 2021 and the launch angles of his hard-hit balls from 2018-2020, courtesy of MLB’s Statcast.
2) He’s actually hitting other batted balls less hard
While McNeil may be generating hard-contact at a career-best rate, that figure is actually deceptive: he’s producing less hard contact on fly balls and line drives, the two types of batted balls most conducive to success. Essentially, he’s hitting the sort of hard-hit balls that a hitter would want to avoid.
League average wOBA on hard-hit batted balls:
Ground balls – .376
Line drives – .651
Fly balls – .913
Subdividing McNeil’s hard-hit batted balls:
|Year||Ground Balls||Line Drives||Fly Balls|
It certainly behooves a hitter to lift his hard-hit balls, resulting in line drives or fly balls. Yet McNeil’s hard contact is resulting in fly balls and line drives at a career-low 34.8% and 24.6%.
Let’s dive into this a little further, specifically taking a look at McNeil’s line drives. If we divide his line drives into three sub-categories of soft, medium, and hard line drives, the absence of hard contact grows all the more apparent.
Type of contact on McNeil’s line drives, by year
For the most part, this has to do with the direction of McNeil’s line drives. Hitters tend to flash the greatest amounts of power to their pull side. McNeil is no exception to this. On line drives to the pull side, McNeil has a career 61.4% hard contact rate. Meanwhile, line drives up the middle result in 60.3% medium contact, while line drives to the opposite field induce a 55.4% medium contact rate.
In the past two seasons, McNeil has ditched the pull side in favor of the middle of the field. It seems as if that approach may be catching up to him.
Direction of McNeil’s line drives, by year
McNeil’s career line drive production:
Pull side: .722 wOBA, 1.065 SLG
Straight away: .687 wOBA, .910 SLG
Opposite field: .688 wOBA, .875 SLG
So, to summarize what we’re seeing: McNeil generates the hardest contact on line drives to the pull side, but in 2021, he’s hitting line drives to the pull side at a 12% clip below his career-high and well below his career average. As a result, his line drives, typically conducive to success, are actually weaker across the board than one would expect.
That helps to explain why McNeil has a .588 wOBA on his line drives in 2021, 63 points below the major league average, and a .800 SLG. The lowly wOBA ranks 179th of 184 hitters who have hit at least 40 line drives, good for the second percentile.
This simply isn’t indicative of who McNeil is as a hitter. He’s proven to be a capable power hitter at the major-league level, blasting 23 home runs just two seasons ago. Perhaps the recurring leg issues have in part zapped his power. But, whatever the case may be, it’s clear that McNeil’s hard-hit rate is deceiving, and has paid minimal dividends for him this season.
If he is to recapture his form as one of baseball’s better hitters, McNeil will undoubtedly need to register more production out of these hard-hit balls.