The answer from Jeff McNeil never changes: Yes, I believe I can lead the league in hitting.
The question for Jeff McNeil changes in a 60-game baseball season.
How high is up for this line-drive Hit Machine?
On a Zoom call on Thursday, there was also this question for McNeil:
Could he hit .400 over a 60-game season? Become the first to do it since Ted Williams hit .406 79 years ago?
“It would be nice,” McNeil said. “I know I had a really good first half of the year last year, so hopefully can do it again, got 60 games to go out there and get as many hits as possible. Hopefully by the end of the year, it is .400, but we’ll see. My goal right now is just to get on base as much as I can for the guys behind me.”
Jose Reyes was the first and last Met to lead the league in hitting (.337) in 2011.
McNeil, who never met a pitch he didn’t like to swing at, will have Pete Alonso and maybe even Yoenis Cespedes batting behind him.
You’d be nuts to dismiss Squirrel’s chances to surpass Reyes and lead the NL. McNeil doesn’t buy that a walk is as good as a hit, so the 254 at-bat minimum shouldn’t be a problem.
Then there is John Olerud, who holds the Mets’ season record (.354) when he finished second in the 1998 batting race to Larry Walker (.363).
What if McNeil, who considers a game-day hot dog a good luck charm, continues to draw inspiration from Joey Chestnut?
McNeil was hitting .349 at last season’s All-Star break before finishing at .318.
Olerud hasn’t seen enough of McNeil at the plate, but he believes a 60-game season gives someone a chance to hit .400.
“I think not playing as many games does give somebody a chance to do that, for sure,” Olerud told The Post by phone. “If you are hot early in the run and you’re able to maintain that, you only have to maintain it for 60 games as opposed to 162.”
McNeil’s unbridled joy can be seen and heard from the press box. He is every bit the Boy of Summer that Alonso is at spring training 2.0.
“It’s a lot of fun [to] be back with the boys … love to be back out there and hitting again,” McNeil said.
McNeil’s challenge is to keep on hitting for average after muscling up with 16 homers over the final 57 games last season to finish with 23 HR.
“I feel like I can do both,” McNeil said. “Last year in the second half I didn’t really change anything, the ball just started to go over the fence a little bit more. This year I came in a little bit stronger, a little bit bigger, but I’m still not gonna change my approach up there. I’m gonna go up there, try to put the ball in play, try to set the table for big hitters like Yo and Pete and J.D. [Davis] and [Michael] Conforto. … My job’s to get on base, and if the homers are there, it’s a bonus.”
With the grind of a 162-game season no longer a factor, there is a buzz to the “Can anyone hit .400?” crowd.
Chipper Jones was at .400 after 73 games in 2008. Nomar Garciaparra was at .403 on July 20, 2000. Todd Helton was at .3995 as late as Aug. 21, 2000.
The three foremost .400 threats since the Splendid Splinter were Tony Gwynn (.394 in the strike-shortened 1994 season), George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Rod Carew (.388 in 1977). Brett was over .400 as late as Sept. 19.
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When Olerud won his AL batting title (.363) in 1993, he was hitting .400 after his 107th game.
“I was significantly above .400 for the first month,” Olerud recalled. “And people would come up and talk to me, ‘Hey, should we give Ted Williams a call?’ … in April. So I was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t worry about it right now.’
“And my thought was, ‘I’m gonna keep this going as long as I can.’ My fundamentals were really good, and my timing was good, and I got into a groove where I felt like the only way somebody was gonna get me out is if I hit the ball hard at somebody … I kinda came out of nowhere putting a good year together.”
The growing media attention didn’t bother Olerud.
“I never felt any pressure,” he said. “I never felt like the expectation was that I was gonna be the guy to hit .400.”
Alas, Olerud became his own worst enemy.
“You don’t sneak up on anybody,” Olerud said. “They know they need to make good pitches, and try to pitch you smart. I think probably I got to August, and got to thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve been doing it for four months, maybe I can do it the last couple of months.’ And I think you start thinking too much about the result and getting hits as opposed to just having good quality at-bats and taking a good swing and getting a good pitch to hit. You get away from what’s been making you successful, you know?”
Hitting .400 remains a long shot, for anyone and everyone.
But Jeff McNeil, 28 years old and in his prime and born to rake, can absolutely win a batting title.
LFGM can also mean Let’s (bleeping) Go McNeil.
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