Will Jeff McNeil shift without the shift?
A pitch clock, bigger bases, a limited number of pickoff tries and banning the shift are the new rules that will transform Major League Baseball in 2023.
How the new rules will directly affect MLB players will be something to keep an eye on, particularly in the early going. Many observers feel the left-handed pull hitters that have had potential hits taken away by the shift, will benefit greatly from the rule.
One of those players is left-handed hitter and National League batting champion Jeff McNeil of the Mets. The 12th round pick in the 2013 draft, who recently signed a four year, $50 million dollar deal with a team option for 2027, led the Major Leagues with a .326 average last season, rebounding from an awful 2021 season, when his numbers plummeted.
McNeil carries the moniker of being a “pure hitter.” A pure hitter is one who is not necessarily a power hitter but one who makes solid contact on a consistent basis, hits for a high average, and is tough to strike out, particularly in clutch situations.
Every hitter has weak points that an opposing pitcher can exploit. A pure hitter has less of those weak points. For example, if a single is all it takes to drive in a run or win a game in a team’s last at bat, an opposing pitcher would rather face a power hitter with more weak points to attack, rather than a pure hitter with less of those options.
Batting average still matters, and McNeil proved that last season as he was one of the Mets’ most dangerous hitters, particularly with men on base.
During McNeil’s first five seasons, he's batted over .300 four times. The outlier was 2021, when he plummeted to a .251 average and was not the same hitter.
He did have some injury problems but McNeil may have fallen victim to launch angle and was out of his comfort zone.
In 2019, McNeil, swung from the heels and hit 23 home runs with 38 doubles. He did hit .318 that season but the shift may have frustrated him at that time, so he swung for the fences and struck out a career-high 75 times. Since that season, McNeil has hit a total of 20 home runs. Last season, he hit 9 home runs with 39 doubles and struck out only 61 times.
I like “Hit Trajectory” from BaseballReference.com as a good indicator of how productive a hitter may be. Consider that in 2021, McNeil hit .261 on ground balls, .160 on fly balls and .560 on line drives.
Last season, it was .330 on ground balls, .128 on fly balls, .641 on line drives. Ninety-one of McNeil’s 174 hits last season were line drives. “Hit Location” showed McNeil hitting .449 on balls that he pulled, and .364 on balls hit up the middle and that was with the shift being in place. Obviously, hitting line drives helped.
So what about this season, without the shift being in place?
Will McNeil add points to his batting average in 2023? The Mets second baseman is talented enough to hit around .340 and be a run producer without the long ball, as long as he stays within himself, focuses on line drives and continues to use the whole field.
McNeil is one Met that will be worth watching closely in 2023.
Photo: Mark Rosenman