Wednesday marked one year since the Mets called up Jeff McNeil and, well, not quite three months since manager Mickey Callaway realized he was the real deal.
When McNeil debuted last year — fittingly, with a first-pitch single against the Padres, who are back at Citi Field this week — there were plenty of skeptics within the industry and the organization when it came to the 26-year-old who was never much of a prospect. Then he hit .329 as a rookie, then the Mets acquired infielders Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie in the winter, then McNeil learned the outfield, then he became an All-Star.
It wasn’t until this May, Callaway said, that he realized McNeil wasn’t a fluke. He really is this kind of throwback player, who led baseball with a .342 average heading into play Wednesday. Since July 24, 2018, McNeil is hitting .337, second in the majors. Only Brewers star/reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich (. 345) has been better.
“You saw what happened the last two months of last season and you’re like, ‘Man, that was really good,’” Callaway said. “You go into the offseason going, ‘OK, hopefully he can do something close to what he was doing,’ and he’s eclipsed all of that. Probably a month into this season this year — maybe a little bit longer — you’re like, ‘Man, this guy is really unbelievable at the plate.’ This guy is hitting like Pete Rose, Wade Boggs, Ichiro [Suzuki]. It’s unbelievable.”
Callaway explained that he thought other teams might pitch to or defend against McNeil in a certain way, and maybe that would diminish his results. But it hasn’t happened. Now, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen cites McNeil as part of the core of a team the Mets believe can compete for a title.
“They’ve tried everything and none of it is working, and it’s not a small sample size anymore,” Callaway said. “His ability to play multiple positions, do it comfortably and do it at an elite level in my opinion has been uncanny and been quite a surprise to all of us. And then his ability to put the ball in play, get hits, understand what’s coming, use the information that’s given makes him the type of hitter he is.”
As expected, the Mets named Zack Wheeler (right shoulder impingement) their starter for Friday against the Pirates. It will be his first start since July 7 and last start before the trade deadline 4 p.m. Wednesday . . . Callaway on hitting coach Chili Davis, who Robinson Cano praised Tuesday night after his three-homer game: “Obviously, Chili’s experience is instant credibility with everybody . . . But I think it’s more who Chili is and what he’s about than what he did on the field. That’s what it is about every good coach. It’s who they are, what do they care about, how do they connect with the players? Chili does a great job with that and I think Robbie values that very much.”