BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
Photo credit: Sarah Stier/Getty Images
The Mets and Jeff McNeil figured there was no place to go but up after a hideous last season.
McNeil hit .249 with seven home runs and 35 RBI while striking out 58 times. He was known for getting into it with Francisco Lindor inside the clubhouse, and let’s just say it had nothing to do with whether or not it was a raccoon or rat in the clubhouse. He was rumored to be traded this offseason, but the Mets thought better of it for good reason. They know he can still hit after watching him hit 23 home runs three years ago.
Mets manager Buck Showalter noted in spring training about McNeil being in a good place. It’s an interesting observation in the sense there may be something to it. Last season, the Mets fired and hired several hitting coaches to tell the hitters to focus on launch angle as in hitting home runs. It was one of Sandy Alderson’s many stupid philosophies that he preached out there. He stressed about the three-run home runs that Earl Weaver liked that would make a difference in the game.
It could have been that philosophy got into McNeil’s head that had him thinking so much. He is not known to be a home run hitter. He is more of a line-drive hitter that suits well for a team playing station-to-station baseball. By hiring Showalter and Eric Chavez as a hitting coach, this likely made his job easy and simple. They told him to do what he does best, which is using the field rather than swing for the fences.
So far so good. After a four-hit performance (his ninth career) in the Mets’ 10-6 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday night at Citi Field, he is hitting .361 with 26 hits and 10 RBI. The Mets can live with his one home run knowing that there may be more to come when the weather heats up.
Instead of thinking of what he is doing wrong, McNeil enjoys playing baseball again.
Sure, the Mets are winning, but it’s more about him not flinging the bat in frustration after being a victim of a strikeout. He’s not being a sourpuss anymore. He is doing what he does best.
McNeil and the Mets are better for it.
It turned out to be a wise decision for the Mets to hold on to McNeil. Mets general manager Billy Eppler, Showalter and Chavez knew what they had in him to hold on to him. He did not exactly lose it all of a sudden from their perspective. It was easy to think that way considering many of the hitters from the Mets struggled as a result of the turnover of hitting coaches. Sometimes having two or three hitting coaches can mess up the psyche of a hitter through paralysis by analysis. It certainly was the case with McNeil, and it showed when he was constantly frustrated.
Firing Chili Davis as the hitting coach was a foolish move, especially because he did not seem interested in following Alderson’s philosophy. Davis played Major League Baseball. He knows a thing or two about getting it done.
It’s beautiful to see McNeil driving the ball. In the series finale against the Phillies, he singled to center in the third inning, doubled to right in the fifth, singled to left in the seventh and doubled to left in the eighth.
That’s the way the game should be played. Home runs are nice, but this shouldn’t be the be-all end-all in what is today’s game of analytics. Teams can win games by being resourceful. Too often last season, the Mets swung for the fences and it was painful to watch them strike out rather than think for themselves.
It’s not an accident this team is doing much better so far in situational hitting by hitting .272 with runners in scoring position. It’s the freedom of letting hitters hit rather than be something they are not, which is hitting home runs. It wasn’t just McNeil that struggled. It was almost everyone.
In a way, it has become liberating for hitters to use their skillset than being told to do something they are not good at. That’s been the case for McNeil.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that he bounced back nicely. Showalter clearly knew what he saw in his hitter to believe in him. It’s just another reason why the Mets manager is one of the best in the business. He has the foresight of knowing what a player can do for him and his team.
McNeil never lost confidence in himself. He came to spring training knowing new management and ownership believed in him. The support turned out to be the start of what he has done so far and what he can continue to do.
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