Sports

Mets’ Jeff McNeil looking to end extra-base hit drought

There’s no confusing Jeff McNeil for a newspaper hawker.

“Extra! Extra!” — not right now for McNeil. So, let’s read all about it.

When McNeil led off the first inning for the Mets on Thursday in Atlanta, he still was in search of his first extra-base hit since coming off the injured list on June 21. He was 7-for-34 (all singles) with no walks, for a .206 batting average and a ghastly .476 OPS in 11 games.

“I think he has expanded [the strike zone] a lot since he came off the IL,” manager Luis Rojas said before the game. “He’s always been a free-swinger. He’s aggressive. But how much he expands, that’s something he doesn’t [usually] do too, too extreme until he gets to two strikes. And that’s something he’s done more now.”

McNeil wasn’t exactly producing up to his standard even before missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. He had just seven extra-base hits in 150 plate appearances (.233 average) over 42 games entering the series finale with the Braves. Three of his four doubles were down the lines, meaning he hasn’t used the outfield gaps as effectively as most hitters who are expected to compete for a batting title.

Jeff McNeil
Jeff McNeil
Getty Images

“He has to narrow the zone a little more and eventually he is going to be able to impact the ball better and he’s going to get his extra-base hits,” Rojas said. “But he’s been hitting some rockets. He hit one right into the shift [Wednesday]. He’ll be OK.”

Rojas double-switched McNeil out of a tight game Tuesday because Jose Peraza offered better defense at second base and a right-handed bat against the dominant left-handers at the back of the Braves’ bullpen. McNeil didn’t start Wednesday — a routine day of rest after a “big ramp up” with the Mets in a grueling part of their schedule — but entered in the fourth inning of a blowout and went 0-for-2, his seventh 0-fer in 11 games.

After hitting .318 and .311, respectively, with a combined 80 extra-base hits over the past two seasons, McNeil’s sweet-spot percentage (how often he produces a batted ball with a premium launch angle) is down to 31.5 percent — a drop-off from 2019 and 2020. Since he walks less frequently than most leadoff hitters, extra-base hits are an important component of McNeil’s game as a catalyst.

Baseball Savant’s analytics suggest McNeil’s chase rate (30 percent) actually is down from the two best years of his young career, when it was 37.8 percent in 2019 and 32.4 percent in 2020. Rojas’ eyes tell a slightly different story. Perhaps most importantly, they don’t suggest McNeil is compensating for lingering injury effects after pressing to return to the injury-depleted Mets.

The Subway Series might be the perfectly timed jump-start for McNeil, who has hit .310 with three extra-base hits in seven career games at Yankee Stadium.

“His mechanics are there,” Rojas said. “He may change his stance every now and then, but he’s done that his entire career when he thinks that he is [too] tall or short. But this guy can hit. I just think that his swing decision has gone a little bit too far from what it’s been in the past.”

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