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Mets' Jeff McNeil picking spots for power amid race for batting title

New York Mets third baseman Jeff McNeil (L)

New York Mets third baseman Jeff McNeil (L) is greeted by New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso (R) at the end of the MLB baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, USA, 02 September 2019. Photo Credit: ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto/ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

 WASHINGTON

Jeff McNeil isn’t usually a Met who homers and runs. But after delivering what his manager described as “the biggest hit of the game” in Monday’s 7-3 win over the Nationals, the aspiring batting champ had to bolt the clubhouse quickly for some family obligations.

We were looking for McNeil because his fourth-inning blast, a two-run shot that traveled 415 feet into the rightfield seats, was not only his 17th homer this season but No. 10 of the second half, a striking imbalance over a much shorter period of time.

Everyone already had pegged McNeil as a supremely valuable contact hitter, and now this post-break power surge has displayed another dimension to his plate skills. Was there a reason for this? Are we watching McNeil morph into the Mets’ own Christian Yelich?

Apparently, what’s happening is not a coincidence. On the surface, it was easy to suggest that McNeil was taking out his recent frustration, a career-long 0-for-15 slump, on Nationals starter Joe Ross when he drilled that first-pitch sinker over the wall. You could see him simmering after two earlier groundouts, and the other Mets — wary of McNeil’s dugout wrath — were hoping for a hit almost as much as he was.

“I think he was running out of bats,” said J.D. Davis, who followed McNeil with a two-run double during that five-run fourth inning. “It was just a matter of time.”

When I joked to hitting coach Chili Davis that 0-for-15 must have felt like an eternity for McNeil, he laughed — but also agreed with the assessment.

“Eternity is right,” Davis said.  “Everybody goes through rough periods. You just got to deal with them and stay focused and keep competing.  When I was a second-year player in the big leagues, I went 4-for-94. That was rough. I don’t think he’ll ever see that. He’s too good a hitter.”

But that’s enough about McNeil’s plate-related temper. As for that power stroke? It’s by design. Davis has McNeil standing more upright against pitchers who throw straighter fastballs, maybe with less downward movement, and that helps him drive the ball even better.

The strategy fluctuates, however, and if McNeil faces someone who relies on heavy sinkers, Davis wants him more “in his legs, just to be down there with the ball when it’s moving” so he’s not getting on top of the pitch.

There is a noticeable difference. After McNeil hit seven homers in 289 at-bats in the first half — batting .349 with a .509 slugging percentage — he’s flexed some serious post-break muscle, belting 10 homers in only 135 at-bats, with a .266 batting average and .547 slugging percentage.

Just as Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn pulled their punches while hitting for average but occasionally would drive for distance, Davis sees McNeil in that way, too. Those are heady comparisons, obviously. Point is, if you’re a master at solid contact, a trait that McNeil shares with those others, that enables you to do all kinds of damage, including the deeper variety.

“They opted to be more precise with their contact, move the ball around, and be more consistent with getting hits opposed to trying to power the ball,” Davis said.  “Mac’s got some pop. Pull-pop, gap-pop the other way.  But I think as he goes through his career, he’s going to grow into the type of hitter he wants to be.

“I like his power, but picking his spots when he takes that power swing. Guys out there know he’s got some pop, and they’ll try to pitch away from it, but he also has the ability to hit the ball in the gap the other way, too. The bottom line is he has the knack of being able to barrel the baseball.”

McNeil also has a knack for jumping on the first pitch he likes, which tends to be the first pitch. He’s drilled 12 of his 17 home runs in those situations and leads the majors with 24 extra-base hits on the first pitch, hitting .411 (37-for-90).

We’d assume there is a science to McNeil’s aggressive approach. But knowing him, maybe he’s just too impatient after waiting for another turn at the plate. Brandon Nimmo can stand there and watch five or six pitches. Not McNeil.

“He’s just a fiery competitor and he wants to get a hit every single time,” Mickey Callaway said. “The kid can hit, so it’s nice to see the homers, too.”

At least McNeil got to leave Nationals Park on Monday with a smile on his face.

DEEP THOUGHTS

Jeff McNeil is hitting for more power in the second half of the season, but his batting average has suffered in the process:

First Half Second Half

76Games37

318Plate App. 157

23Doubles10

7Home Runs10

.349Batting Avg..266

.509Slug. Pct..547

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