SAN DIEGO — It is, Brandon Nimmo observed, “kind of weird.”
We are discussing Jeff McNeil’s unique knobless bat, his baseball weapon of choice that is “kind of the first thing broadcasters talk about” when the Mets open a series with a new opponent, the Mets’ soft-spoken star sophomore noted with a smile. For those fans of a certain age, this odd-looking contraption might bring them back to their stickball-playing days.
“When you catch it sweet with an end-heavy one, you don’t even feel the ball,” Nimmo, who has tried McNeil’s bat in pregame practice although not in a game, explained on Sunday. “His, you kind of feel the ball the whole time. But you’ll catch it sweet and you’ll see it go pretty far and you’ll go, ‘Huh, that’s a different feeling.’
“It’s hard to describe, but it is a different feeling. But it’s a very balanced bat, and he controls it very well.”
That’s the moral to much of McNeil’s inspirational tale: It works for him. As did not making his big-league debut until age 26, thanks to injuries and the lack of a pedigree (Sandy Alderson’s crew selected him in the 12th round of the 2013 amateur draft). As does bouncing around from position to position depending on the Mets’ other needs and relative health. As does sporting the fitting nickname, “Squirrel,” which he hid from the public at first before embracing it.
He’s not looking to be a pioneer, or even a spokesman, as he tries to establish his bona fides in his first full major league season. Nevertheless, this trend-breaking bat sure is working for him, as he brought a fantastic .347/.423/.463 slash line into the Mets’ 4-0 Monday night loss to the Padres at Petco Park.
“I like how this one feels,” McNeil said on Sunday. “I’ve been using this one for three years. I haven’t switched since, so no point in doing it now.”
Actually, he’s approaching the four-year anniversary, if only about three years in on-field time. In 2016, while on the roster of Double-A Binghamton — he played in only three games thanks to a core muscle repair and torn labrum — McNeil took up on the offer of Lamar Johnson, then the Mets’ hitting coordinator and now a senior adviser, who had received some of the knobless bats from the Maine-based manufacturer Dove Tail Bats.
“I got one in my hands, liked how it felt and have been using it ever since,” McNeil said. He added, “It’s very similar to the bat I used before. It just doesn’t have a knob. That’s the only thing.”
Which, given how much baseball reveres both its tradition and equipment, would be like saying, “This car is very similar to the one I drove before. It just doesn’t have a steering wheel.”
“If your hand is at the end of the bat anyway, you don’t need a knob,” Dove Tail founder Paul Lancisi said Sunday in a telephone interview. “It’s a tremendously balanced bat because of the thickness of the handle.”
That thickness also makes the bat sturdier, Lancisi said, and McNeil confirmed he hasn’t broken a bat this season.
It might not be as revolutionary as we think, noted Lancisi, who explained, “It’s an old school model that guys would use eons ago.” He added, “Jackie swung a really thick handle,” and photos of Jackie Robinson holding a bat confirm that, although his Louisville Sluggers appear to have knobs at the end.
The bat McNeil took from Johnson “isn’t one of our original designs,” Lancisi acknowledged, as it emulates Louisville Slugger’s U1 model. That bat, used by Hall of Famer Alan Trammell according to the website What Pros Wear, had a “flared knob,” which is minimized yet not eliminated altogether like on McNeil’s.
After initially enjoying Dove Tail’s U1, McNeil asked Lancisi to make the handle 1/32 of an inch thinner. Now the model is known as the JMac1, awaiting a second regular customer. Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler said he used it for one at-bat last year and decided he “wanted something with a little more weight.”
McNeil won’t go as far as solely crediting the bat for his professional surge; he also underwent strength training and learned on the job. He gets it, though. The bat is different. Maybe even a little weird.
“Good publicity, I guess,” he said, smiling again, and really, when can’t the Mets use some of that?