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Wither Tyler O'Neill?

Few acquisitions in the last year or so have excited the Cardinals’ fanbase more than last year’s trade for Tyler O’Neill. The reports of his power potential were legion across baseball and he pretty instantly was ranked in nearly everyone’s top-100 list. He finished the 2017 season by hitting 12 homers for Memphis and began this season with 26 more for the Cards’ AAA franchise.

Entering the 2018 season Fangraphs ranked O’Neill the team’s #2 prospect and declared him a 50 FV player – a solid everyday player – on a 20-80 scale. The one characteristic that everyone just oohs and aahs over is his raw power, which Eric Longenhagen rated a 70 on that 20-80 scale. Even as many Cards’ fans have been critical of John Mozeliak’s roster construction over the last couple of years, there seems to be near unanimity among fans that the team’s trade of Marco Gonzalez for O’Neill is one of Mo’s best (despite Gonzalez’s very good 1st season in Seattle).

Why do we love Tyler O’Neill? Let me count the ways. But mostly it’s because he can do things like this:

Tyler O’Neill brutalizes baseballs. Period. The raw power that O’Neill possesses is like no one else in the Cardinals organization and is like few throughout the game. He can turn routine fly balls into 3-run bombs.

His minor-league pedigree has shown, however, that he’s no 1-trick pony. Each of the last 3 minor league seasons he’s carried a walk rate > 10%, has above average speed, and is thought to be at least a solid defender in both outfield corners. Plus, he can moonlight in center, if needed. The only real flaw in his minor league pedigree has been that at times he has struggled to make contact. Still, after arriving from the Mariners he made a change in his stance and was able to reduce his strikeout rate at AAA to just 26.7%. In half a season at AAA this year, his strikeout rate was 24.9%. Said Longenhagen prior to the season:

Many still consider O’Neill’s bat to be a bit more volatile and worrisome than is typical for an upper-level hitter who has had flawed but sustained success for multiple seasons. Barring a complete inability to contact major-league pitching, O’Neill’s combination of power and patience — he’s recorded a career .243 ISO and 9% walk rate — should enable him to clear that bar.

The trade of Tommy Pham to the Rays and the injury to Dexter Fowler opened up significant playing time for O’Neill had he been able to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, because of his poor play – since the All-Star break he has a 40% strikeout rate – not only has Jose Martinez essentially taken right field from O’Neill but Patrick Wisdom has relegated O’Neill to the not-at-all coveted last-right-handed-non-catcher-off-the-bench role.

This season with the Cardinals, not only does O’Neill sport a 40.9% strikeout rate but his walk rate is below 5%. This is certainly not what the Cardinals thought they were getting when they called him up from Memphis. The power is obviously there, and it says something about how much power he has that his wRC+ is still 107 – 7% above league average – even with the horrible walk and strikeout rates. He’s shown positive defensive and baserunning numbers, to boot, and has actually been a positive force for the team despite never walking and striking out 2 out of every 5 times he comes to the plate. The power obviously helps but he’s also been aided by a (probably) unsustainable .356 BABIP.

In trying to figure out what O’Neill is doing wrong, the answer is pretty easy to figure out. He’s not really swinging at an inordinately high percentage of pitches outside the zone. His O-zone% is 35.3% which is high, but not astronomical. It would put him in about the 25th percentile of hitters in terms of swinging at pitches outside the zone. Like I said, it’s high but not something that would indicate a 40% K rate.

No, the problem is that his contact rate is simply far too low. His contact rate is the lowest on the team among non-pitchers (just 57.6%) as is his contact rate on pitches in the zone (65.5%). So on pitches in the strike zone, he swing-and-misses more than a third of the time. That’s bad. On all of his swings, he’s almost as likely to miss as he is to make contact. That’s really bad. Again, he’s not really swinging at bad pitches, he’s just missing the pitches he swings at.

Still, one wonders if this kind of skillset makes him a palatable option for the Cardinals going forward. As I noted earlier, his wRC+ is above average and he’s been above average on the bases and on defense as well. Can this work? Can he hit enough homers and enough base hits on hard-hit balls to overcome the K’s and a 5% walk rate?

Among qualified MLB position players, O’Neill’s strikeout rate would be the highest in the game. The O’s Chris Davis (36%) and the Rangers’ Joey Gallo (35.7%) are the closest to O’Neill’s 40.9%. Davis has probably been the worst player in the game this year (-2.8 fWAR) but Gallo actually has been pretty good (2.7 fWAR). What helps Gallo is a 12.9% walk rate – near what the Cardinals are surely hoping for out of O’Neill – and that he has 37 HR’s. His wRC+ is 112 despite a .256 BABIP. It’s possible, therefore, that Gallo is our best comp to see if O’Neill’s current level of performance is one the team can withstand.

Gallo has played some 1B and even some CF but he’s spent most of the season in LF and has, by both UZR and DRS, been an above average fielder. Despite being 6’5” and 235 pounds he’s also been an above average base runner, as well. Even so, O’Neill’s base running and defensive numbers appear to be better than Gallo’s despite the very small sample we’re using to evaluate O’Neill. But it’s reasonable to think if Gallo can do it, so can O’Neill.

The question to me comes down to that BABIP. If he had enough PA’s to qualify, that .356 BABIP would place him tied for 9th among all major league hitters. Still, we’re accustomed to thinking that a hitter’s BABIP is going to regress toward a mean of about .300. We should expect, however, players with above average exit velocity and above average speed to be able to sustain BABIPs greater than .300. O’Neill has both.

This year, O’Neill’s average exit velocity is 91.3 mph, well above the major league average of 87.7 mph. If O’Neill had enough PA’s to qualify, his exit velocity would place him 6th highest in baseball. J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, and Manny Machado are 1-2-3 so that company he’s with is no joke. Statcast does seem to suggest, on the other hand, that O’Neill has benefited from some luck as his expected wOBA is 16 points lower (.316) than his actual wOBA (.332). A .316 wOBA would put him right between Marcell Ozuna and Paul DeJong on the Cardinals and would make him about an average major league hitter. Still, there’s every reason to suggest that with his defense and base running O’Neill could be a league average player even with a league average bat.

In a lot of respects, I’d consider the O’Neill we see right now to be sort of a worst-case scenario for him. A ridiculously high strikeout rate combined with a ridiculously low walk rate would put nearly any hitter on the end of any bench but O’Neill’s raw power and ability to pulverize the baseball suggests that his bat could play even he continues to swing-and-miss at the current rate.

He clearly needs to get better and it can be difficult to watch him believing with a high degree of confidence that he’s going to strike out when he comes up to the plate. Still, there are enough highlights like the one in the video above to tantalize the team and offer up the possibility that, even as bad as he looks so often, his contribution is still more positive than it is negative. And frankly – and this is not where I thought I’d end up when I began this research – there’s a good argument to be made that he should be playing more than he is, given Jose Martinez’s current struggles.

Thanks to baseball savant, fangraphs, and baseball-reference for all the data in this post.

Thanks as always to the fantastic @cardinalsgifs for the pic at the top and the great gif.

Thanks to you all for reading.


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