Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets connects on his...

Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets connects on his seventh-inning two run double against the San Diego Padres in game two of their Wild Card Series at Citi Field on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Jeff McNeil isn’t much of a numbers guy.

In the alphabet soup of modern offensive statistics — OPS, wRC, EV, LA and the rest — he remains partial to old-fashioned average, which is why his batting title this season meant so much to him. Manager Buck Showalter says all the time: McNeil loves knocks. Last year, when the Mets had an analytics-heavy approach to hitting and preparing for hitting, it was “a little overwhelming,” he said. This year, he led all major-league hitters with a .326 average.

But there is one set of splits he does mull, a favorite that speaks to how he views baseball.

“I like to kind of look at my numbers against the shift versus not the shift,” said McNeil, who decidedly doesn’t hate it when a team puts three infielders on the right side, leaving the left gaping. “It shows that I've been able to kind of beat that this year and go the other way. It just shows a lot to my approach.”

An approach that Showalter, by the way, greatly appreciates. In addition to being defensively versatile, playing second base, leftfield and rightfield this season (and third base in seasons past), McNeil has served as something of a utility hitter, too.

Does Brandon Nimmo need a day off? Slot McNeil right into the leadoff spot. Showalter did that five times this year.

Moving around Francisco Lindor? McNeil is happy to take his spot batting third, which happened on 21 occasions.

Is Pete Alonso likewise placed elsewhere? You can be absolutely sure that McNeil is a happy — and capable — cleanup hitter. He filled in for his more traditional slugging friend thrice.

Unable to find a reliable No. 5 hitter, a problem much of the year? McNeil was there for 39 starts, his most at any one spot.

McNeil doesn’t care where he hits. He cares about hitting.

“I like hitting anywhere. It doesn't really matter,” McNeil said. “I think I fit everywhere in the lineup this year. I feel comfortable no matter where he puts me. My job is to get on base and have guys drive me in. Doesn't matter where I am in the lineup. Just going to do my job.”

Incredibly, despite his success, McNeil spent a significant portion of his season in the bottom half of the lineup. That included 33 starts batting sixth, 18 starts batting seventh and 23 starts batting eighth.  

“His ego about where he hits in the lineup has been key to this,” Showalter said. “His ability to move around and present challenges through the lineup was big for us.”

With the quantity of quality hitters the Mets had this year — their top four in the order remained largely stable in Nimmo, Starling Marte, Lindor and Alonso — having a contact-focused player like McNeil proved huge for Showalter.

The benefits of sticking McNeil near the bottom included his ability to clean up whatever baserunners the middle hitters left on, or merely reach base and help turn the lineup over to get Nimmo & Co. back up the plate sooner.

Lots of hitters say they prefer process over results. If they send a hard line drive directly at a fielder and it becomes an out, so be it, they did what they could do and it just didn’t work out.

That tends to be less true for McNeil, who isn’t afraid of slamming his helmet in frustration over so-called hard outs. But dribblers and bloops? Ugly hits are hits nonetheless.

“Where could you not hit him in the lineup?” Showalter said. “Sometimes when he would flip the lineup at the bottom was huge for us. The ability to be a weapon — he’s not an out against lefthanded pitching. He doesn’t care about how it looks or how he holds the bat or what his choke looks like.”

Such is the beauty of a throwback like McNeil, a career. 307 hitter. That is third best in the majors since he debuted in 2018. He has been an All-Star in two of his three full seasons. He may well receive down-ballot NL MVP votes this year.

“I take my deep breath before every single bat, which kind of helps me slow things down,” he said. “Once I get in the box, I'm always ready to go, always ready to swing.”