New York Mets' Jeff McNeil in the dugout after his...

New York Mets' Jeff McNeil in the dugout after his solo home run in the fourth inning against Milwaukee at Citi Field on June 15, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

There are times, when Jeff McNeil has had a bad day at the plate, when he’ll be motionless in front of his locker after the game, still in uniform when others have long changed, far removed from the whimsical joviality that often marks his demeanor.

He’ll be just sitting — slouched, legs splayed, eyes cast to a fixed point, brow furrowed in concentration.

To be clear, there aren’t an overwhelming number of bad days at the plate for a guy who's hitting .327, third in the National League going into Thursday's games.

But though it’s often said that baseball is a game of failure, McNeil seems to take exception to that axiom, his body language screaming that failing 70% of the time isn’t all that great, actually. Never mind that he's convalescing for now, nursing a hamstring injury that the Mets expect will be better by this weekend in Miami.

“He’s just engaged in the competition,” Buck Showalter said. “He sees the game through a competitive lens. If you look through the years at guys I’ve gotten from his background [at Cal State Long Beach], they know the game within the game and they enjoy playing that part of it . . . He wants everything but also, when he gets in the batter’s box, he clears the mechanism, so to speak, and sees it and hits it.”

“It’s fun to watch.”

Everywhere all at once

And if there’s one thing that’s true about McNeil, it’s that his particular brand of baseball is undoubtedly a blast to behold.

McNeil is a throwback, and everywhere all at once, a ball of kinetic energy that uncoils to poke pitches out of the strike zone and into the opposite field.

His spray chart looks like it was painted by Jackson Pollock, and when he’s at the plate, he can hit it 369 feet for a home run (June 15) or flick at a 95-mph sinker at the very bottom corner of the strike zone and somehow end up at second with an infield double (June 14).

The lefty’s weighted on-base average against the shift is .416, which is .066 better than when defenses play him straight up. In the field, he’s got the versatility of a utilityman fighting for a job, not a former All-Star with the team's best on-base percentage. He’s played second, third, right and left just this season while quietly leading the Mets in wins above replacement, at 2.5, which is 12th in the NL, according to FanGraphs. His .851 OPS is second on the team to only Pete Alonso, and he's hitting .404 with runners in scoring position, best on the Mets.

He’s also having a little bit of a renaissance after a 2021 season that saw him hit career lows in almost all offensive categories. And no, he wasn’t having a whole lot of fun back then.

“I think I had so many thoughts in my head last year that weren’t so great, and I was searching, I guess, and never really able to find it,” he said. “So [I went into this year] with the least number of thoughts. I’ve always been a good hitter, so if I have the least number of thoughts I can have up there, I can let my natural ability take over.”

See it, hit it

And this was a conscious effort, hitting coach Eric Chavez said. Chavez was lured to the Mets in January 2022 after originally taking a position with the Yankees, and Showalter said he’s been pivotal in the Mets’ offensive successes — partially because he lets players be who they are. So, when McNeil had a plan of action, he was immediately on board.

“Jeff came into spring training in a good headspace,” Chavez said in May. “A lot of things were going on last year and he’s really simplified things . . . His approach is kind of the opposite of what’s being taught in baseball, which for me, is very refreshing — the fact that he tries to hit balls the other way.

"There are a lot of balls in the shift where there’s been one guy on the left side of the field, and he’s found that guy a lot of times. The percentages of that — even if three or four or five of those get through, he could be batting close to .400.”

McNeil proved it time and again against the Nationals, who apparently refused to learn their lesson on May 31, repeatedly playing the shift on him. He went 3-for-4, all singles, and all of them poked to the opposite field —  one pitch so far outside he almost had to bow to get it. But that’s part of his arsenal, too.

“His bat-to-ball skills and the way his upper half works in getting the barrel to the baseball is some of the best I’ve ever seen,” Chavez said. “Jeff knows what type of hitter he is. He can easily, year after year, lead the league in hitting.”

Just a bit outside

In fact, McNeil’s batting average on balls put in play is highest on pitches in one particular area outside of the strike zone — his BABIP is .476 on balls low and outside, according to Baseball Savant. He only has a 28.4% chase rate on balls out of the zone this year, but he's made contact almost 71% of the time on those same balls.

“I feel like I’ve been recognizing pitches a little bit better this year,” McNeil said. “Seeing it deep, having a good approach, and seeing something middle, middle away and shooting it to left . . . If I just need to put the ball in play to get the runner in, I don’t mind going out of the zone because I know I can get the job done.”

The result is a strikeout percentage that’s better than 94% of the league, according to Baseball Savant. But rather than beat teams into submission, he pesters them with a million paper cuts, his average exit velocity hovering around 87.9 mph, which is in the lowest 26% in baseball. He’s got only four home runs.

“For him to understand that he’s a high-average guy — high on-base, contact high and he’s going to hit some homers . . . but to have guys who understand who they are, having guys who know who they are and what they bring to the team, they’re good with that,” Chavez said. “That’s really good and really refreshing.”

School's out for summer

Knowing who he is has been pivotal to all of this, especially to recalibrating when he starts to get away from himself.

McNeil has always been hungry for information, but this era of baseball is overloaded with just so much of it, and it can drown out the internalized knowledge of a body that’s long learned how to act and react. Turns out, self-doubt is the last thing you need in a sport where pitchers are hurling 100-mph fastballs and sliders with 18 inches of horizontal movement.

“I’ve actually probably looked at the least amount of video than I ever have this year,” McNeil said. “I looked at so much video last year, and that almost psyches you out. Pitchers’ stuff looks really good on video, and now, I’m looking for that pitch. This year, I just want to know what a pitcher throws and go up there and kind of let my ability take over — not thinking too much.”

Think less, do more. It's a solid approach, though the postgame brood is still sometimes part of the Jeff McNeil playbook. But that’s part of who he is, too, and this year, it’s turning out to be exactly what the Mets need.