NY Sports Day
Andy Esposito

Esposito: Mets Finally Growing a “Rose” in McNeil

Robert Cole/NYSD

Now before you start snickering and thinking up punchlines, this has absolutely nothing to do with gambling and anything off the field, but it appears as if the Mets have finally found their “Pete Rose” after nearly sixty years of searching. His name is Jeff McNeil and you already know he’s one of the best hitters in baseball after less than two years in the majors.

The comparisons between baseball’s all-time hits leader and the Mets’ hits leader this season are both fascinating and perhaps inevitable, and again, get those gambling assertions out of your mind. We’re talking on-the-field exclusively here.

Rose started out as a scrappy second baseman who could hit for average and really was an overall great ballplayer anywhere he played and even made the All-Star Game at multiple positions. McNeil came up last year as a scrappy second baseman who could hit for average and who quickly established himself as someone who could play virtually anywhere, and has already made the All-Star team in his second season in the bigs.

Rose racked up hits like a pinball machine racks up bumper points and who ended up a three-time batting champion among his many, many on-field accomplishments. McNeil is a valid candidate to win his first batting title this year, as he sits currently atop the leader board in the NL at .333 going into the last game of this nine-game homestand and has been in first place for much of the season, despite losing nearly two weeks to a strained left hammy.

Rose was a switch-hitter, and McNeil bats lefty, but both hitters often were their club’s leadoff hitter, their igniters, rally-starters, and while not known as home run hitters, could bang the ball out of the ballpark with enough regularity to make them feared as more than just average hitters.

In Rose’s rookie year (1963, when he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award), the second baseman clocked in with 157 games, 623 at-bats, 170 hits, 25 doubles, nine triples, six home runs and 41 runs batted in, batting .273.

In McNeil’s first 157 games, which includes 87 games last year, having been called up on July 24, and his first 70 games this year through June 29, the sometime leftfielder/rightfielder/third baseman/second baseman batted .337 in 487 at-bats, with 164 hits, 34 doubles, seven triples, and 51 RBIs.

The two infielder/outfielders also share a propensity for getting hit with a pitch – with McNeil already ahead in that department, apparently playing with a target on his body. Rose was hit over 100 times over the course of his 24-year career. McNeil already has 23 bruises from being plunked that often in his first 172 games through this homestand.

Basically, what we’re saying after this buildup, is that the Mets, after 58 seasons, may have finally found a homegrown hitter who can consistently be among the league leaders in multiple categories, and who, along with the other young go-to players such as Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard, can eventually lead this team to the promised land.

The want for such a player has certainly endured decades of searching.

In the early days, it was Ron Hunt who held the same promise. And he was good. Very good. As in All-Star good. Hunt played a dozen years for a total of five teams (1963-74, 1,483 games, 1,429 hits, .273).

Even in their inaugural season, 1962, one of the first fan favorites was a young infielder named Rod Kanehl who the burgeoning fan base regarded with a rising career path. But he was out of baseball by 1965, his entire career was as a Met (1962-64, 340 games, 192 hits, .241 BA).

In subsequent years, the club developed many very good players, even All-Stars, and especially a bunch of sluggers, including: Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones, Lee Mazzilli, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Todd Hundley, Edgardo Alfonzo, and of course, David Wright.

But the day-in/day-out average hitters were rare commodities.

Jose Reyes won the club’s only batting title, with a .337 mark in 2011.

At one point, the organization thought they had a budding superstar in Mike Vail. They even traded Rusty Staub to make room for him. That didn’t work out, did it.

Dave Magadan debuted with fanfare on the eve of the 1986 World Championship. Good hitter, but his star faded after a few years, and today, he’s a well-respected batting coach.

Gregg Jefferies was once heralded. But he was more a pain in the …oops, than he was worth.

And of late, Brandon Nimmo was supposed to be what McNeil and Alonso have already become rolled into one, but his career has been stalled by injuries. There’s still a chance he can join the party, so to speak, though, so the jury’s still out.

In 58 seasons, the Mets have never claimed a hitter with 3,000 hits. They’ve never even had one reach 2,000 hits. The all-time club leader is Captain David Wright, with 1,777 hits.

This observer once speculated that maybe Conforto has a chance to be that kind of special hitter. And he still could, but after 549 games in the majors, Conforto is a .253 hitter with 465 hits.

McNeil could become that kind of hitter, and we’re not even predicting as such, because so much has to happen for so long to do so, but the trajectory is there.

McNeil ranks tenth in the NL with a .400 on-base percentage and is on track to become the fourth Met ever (first since Wright in ‘07) to post a .300/.400/.500 season in Avg./OBP/SLG.

Going into the Thursday game against the Cubs, McNeil has hit .295 since the All-Star break (36-122) and overall is hitting .381 with runners in scoring position.

His home-road splits are fairly consistent, batting slightly better on road (.338) than at home (.328).

He’s reached base in 88% of his starts (87 of 99), and 87% of his career starts (132 of 151).

Interestingly, he’s batting .419 on the first pitch of an at-bat 36 for 86), leads the majors with 23 extra-base hits on the first pitch, and is tied with Ozzie Albies with 36 hits on the first pitch.

No matter how you slice it, McNeil’s got positive numbers, after the game stationed at .330, 137 hits, 16 home runs, 57 RBIs . Time will tell if he’s headed toward a Pete Rose-like career or otherwise, but the future does look “rosey.” (Sorry, the pun was irresistable.)


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