CHICAGO — Jeff McNeil’s peripheral numbers indicate he’s hitting the ball better than his true statistics suggest, but that’s not to say he’s been a victim.
The slumping Mets second baseman was on the bench Thursday night, giving Jonathan Villar a start against the Cubs. Manager Luis Rojas said the move was more about getting Villar into the mix than McNeil’s 3-for-19 (.158) performance on the road trip as play began.
Overall, McNeil owned a .167/.255/.286 slash line with one homer and four RBIs. He joined Michael Conforto as a key member of the lineup still not producing. Another important member of that lineup, Francisco Lindor, was coming off his first three-hit game of the season.
Rojas said he has spoken to McNeil about trusting the process, but it’s sometimes difficult to get that point across.
“I still see the same thing and talked to him about that,” Rojas said. “He’s trying to stay inside the ball, he is trying to almost shoot the ball, place the ball. He’s trying to be too fine and I don’t know if there’s any hitter that can be like that.”
McNeil batted only .109 in spring training. His loudest hit of the regular season was the homer he blasted in the ninth inning of the home opener that helped the Mets rally for a comeback victory against the Marlins, but since then he has virtually disappeared.
McNeil’s penchant for putting the ball in play remains the same — he has struck out only 6.4 percent of the time, among the best in MLB in that category. And his XBA (expected batting average based on how he’s hit the ball) of .260, according to Statcast, places him firmly in the middle of the pack among players.
“I don’t really think he is slumping,” Pete Alonso said. “Just because he hasn’t gotten a hit doesn’t mean he’s in a slump. I think the term ‘slump’ isn’t necessarily the right word for it. I just think he’s been unlucky because since the start of the season he’s been putting a lot of balls in play.
“Sometimes he doesn’t get the right bounce or the defense is positioned well, and he’s been getting a lot of really good at-bats. It’s not like he has been striking out a lot. He has been putting the ball in play hard and it’s just because he is not getting the hit and the tangible result of having a hit.”
But McNeil’s competitive nature sometimes keeps him more focused on the results than the process. Rojas would prefer if McNeil just tried to hit the ball hard and not worry about whether it gets caught.
“He has got pretty good bat control, so he is going to make pretty good contact with the ball, especially early in counts,” Rojas said. “Impact the ball at the highest velocity he can and let it play out. Those are the things we want him to do and he hasn’t translated it into the game where he just gets ready in his natural stance and he just goes and swings.
“There are some things you can’t control after you hit the baseball, but trying to place it, trying to hit it in between three defenders is almost what we see. The best thing he can be is aggressive and don’t be so result-oriented.”
McNeil has surpassed a .300 batting average in his first three seasons in the major leagues, and Alonso sees no reason this year will be different.
“We play a game of failure and we’re at the beginning of the year and you look at the scoreboard and it’s, ‘Oh, what the hell?’ ” Alonso said. “But that number on the scoreboard that reflects his average, it’s not going to be like that that way for long. I think when the season is really at the halfway point or the end of the year it’s going to be laughable, it’s not a big deal at all.”