Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images
He probably can’t do this forever, but Jeff McNeil is dismantling the overshift.
Teammate Pete Alonso may be threatening to break the rookie home run record, but Jeff McNeil is keeping pace with him in his own way. After a two-homer night on Wednesday, McNeil tied Alonso in the team lead for wRC+ at 146. While Alonso is doing his damage with the long ball, McNeil has relied on his hit tool. For a time, McNeil was a favorite for the batting title, and while he might not have time to catch Anthony Rendon or Bryan Reynolds, his season has shown that he’s a hard hitter to defend against.
Jeff McNeil isn’t the sort of player that would be shifted against but in 2019, everyone sees a shift at some point. McNeil has hit against the shift 95 times this season, which represents 18.9 percent of his plate appearances. There’s an argument to be made that McNeil should be shifted against more often. He’s not a dead pull hitter, but a majority of his ground balls still go to the right side. Take a look at his spray chart on all his grounders in 2019:
That looks like the spray chart of somebody who should be shifted against depending on who’s on the mound. Even if you’ll give up a few grounders down the third base line, you should make up for it with the extra outs made on the right side of the infield. In his career, McNeil has pulled 56.9 percent of his grounders and just 13.4 percent to the opposite field. It’s a rather similar profile to Charlie Blackmon, who has been shifted against in more than half his plate appearances.
The shift hasn’t worked against McNeil this year, however. When McNeil faces a standard defensive alignment, he has a wOBA of .374. With the shift, his wOBA rises all the way to .429. Now, that’s counting all his plate appearances against the shift regardless of where he hits the ball. If he hits a home run, it doesn’t matter where the defense is.
If we narrow that down to grounders, McNeil has a batting average of .256, which is close to the league average BABIP on grounders (.236). Against the shift, McNeil is hitting a whopping .515 when he puts the ball on the ground. Among all hitters with at least 25 grounders hit into the shift, McNeil owns the highest average by 109 points.
Now, this is just 33 plate appearances we’re talking about. That’s not nearly enough to say that McNeil definitely knows how to beat the shift. He has just beaten it so far. It’s still probably a good idea to employ the shift against him.
It’s not so much that he’s finding the open holes. Here’s his spray chart of grounders against the shift.
He’s sent a couple down the third base line and a few just to the left of second where not even a straight-up defense would get to it. Mostly though, McNeil is getting lucky. He’s benefitted from some poor defense, and he’s sent a few slow rollers that perfectly split the defense.
McNeil has terrific bat control, and I don’t want to discount that. Still, no one picks apart a defense quite like he has with any sort of consistency.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.