Jeff McNeil’s surprising woes big part of Mets’ issues

Just about everywhere Jeff McNeil has played, he has hit and hit often.

His 2021 has been a much different story.

The Mets’ utilityman was bound to hit under .292 over the course of a full season as a pro at some point — though he had not in any of his first eight years in the organization — but his drop-off this season has been stark.

McNeil entered Tuesday’s game against the Cardinals batting .248 with a .666 OPS, both career-lows. He is far from the only Met having a down year offensively, part of the reason the team ranks among the worst offenses in the league, but his consistent bat has largely been missing as the Mets try to put together a playoff push.

“It’s been different,” manager Luis Rojas said Tuesday. “For a lot of guys it has been. He’s had a couple stretches here and there. He hasn’t exactly gotten hot to the level where we’ve seen him get hot before. He hasn’t hit for power like he has before. … He’s a guy that, he’s pretty easy barrel to ball. He hasn’t been that guy consistently this year.”

Jeff McNeil
Corey Sipkin

McNeil’s power has also gone missing. He was not a big home run hitter most of his minor league career, but hit 22 across three levels in 2018 and a career-high 23 with the Mets in 2019.

Entering Tuesday, he had six home runs this season — none in his past 39 games. Since his last home run on Aug. 1, McNeil had a .200/.255/.262 slash line.

“It’s been really tough to explain,” Rojas said. “He’s put the ball on the ground a lot this year. Swing has been a little different than the last couple years. But he’s been on the search for a while. I think he’s found himself, but he just lost it the same day or two days later. It hasn’t been consistent.”

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McNeil’s ground-ball rate was a career-high 46.3 percent, according to Baseball Savant. But it was 44.4 percent in 2020, when he hit .311 with a .836 OPS, and 43.6 percent in 2019 when he hit .318 with a .916 OPS. His line-drive rate was also down to 23.5 percent this season.

After McNeil missed a month earlier this season with a hamstring strain and then battled “leg fatigue” in July, Rojas wondered if some of those issues could have played a role in the lack of production.

“I don’t know if that was something that affected him, from a lower-half standpoint to work well with his swing to drive the ball better,” Rojas said.

McNeil’s struggles were amplified on Monday night when he came up empty in a pair of big spots — striking out with the bases loaded in the first inning and again with runners on the corners in the eighth. He did not hide his frustration either time, as he often wears his emotions on his sleeve, though Rojas said he was not concerned about McNeil carrying it over from game-to-game.

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After Monday’s struggles, he dropped to batting .176 (15-for-85) with runners in scoring position this season — an area he had largely been successful in (hitting .326) before this year.

Still, Rojas pointed to McNeil swinging the bat better of late — he was hitting .290 (9-for-31) in his last nine games before Tuesday — as he has become the Mets’ everyday left fielder since Javier Baez took over at second base.

“The two-strike approach, it’s almost like you’re facing two hitters in one at-bat,” Rojas said. “You have that power hitter who can hit it over the fence pull-side early and has a lot of coverage in the strike zone. Or you have that scrappy two-strike hitter that you can’t strike out. He hasn’t been that guy. But I feel he’s going to finish strong.”

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