Mike O'Neill has long been a player who seemed 100 years too late for his skillset, the man with a dead ball era hitting style straight out of 1906 stuck in a modern era of baseball that doesn't seem to appreciate his lack of strikeouts or his love of singles much at all. And for good reason too: If we've learned anything about hitter value in the last hundred years or so, it's that being able to hit for extra bases is one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, trait a hitter can possess.
As I wrote back in February in O'Neill's Other 15 profile:
Take this on for size: In his minor league career, O'Neill has walked 204 times in 1301 PA's and struck out only 86 times. That's roughly 2.5 walks for every strikeout. Even more insane: He has only 66 XBH to go along with 285 singles. Mike O'Neill respects the first base bag so much he's afraid to round it, but loves it so much that he can't go much more than one plate appearance without paying it a visit. He's the baseball manifestation of the "friend zone".
That's still mostly true for the first six weeks of this season: Just 5 hits for extra bases in 155 PA's, an ISO so miniscule it's nearly not worth measuring at all, and a walk rate of 14.8% that's basically providing all of O'Neill's value to this point.
What's changed? Well, the strikeouts, for one: The 11% K-rate is the highest since his 2011 in any 150 PA stretch. He's also going through a bit of a struggle with BABIP, hitting just .304 when he puts the ball in play, which, while still above the Texas League average of .299, is 45 points below his career average of .349.
That's where things get a bit weird: You would expect that O'Neill's batted ball profile would reflect some of his struggles with BABIP, but it really doesn't. His line drive rate is at a career high per Minor League Central, and his other batted ball rates are in line or better than his career rates. He's just not getting as many hits.
So is he just getting unlucky? I suspect that's part of it, as well as striking out 4% more than he has the rest of his career, which is something you can ill afford to do if you make your living putting the ball in play and reaching first base. Looking a bit closer, however, I also think it's something else: Defensive shifts.
O'Neill's skill set suggests that he's the opposite of the type of player that a shift would work against. High contact rate, handles the bat well, refuses to chase balls outside the strike zone, and can put the ball in play where the defense ain't, as the old saying goes. But after watching a number of Springfield games this year, it seems like teams are squeezing the areas that O'Neill used to feast on for base hits -- the area between SS and 3B is a big one, and the same gap between the keystone and first baseman on the left side of the infield. When I watched games last year, you could always see one of the middle infielders in the CF camera looking in at the pitcher, indicating that teams were squeezing the middle of the field against O'Neill, even thought he doesn't get a great many hits back up the middle.
This season? I've rarely seen them in the picture and when the ball is put in play towards those gaps, the corner infielders also seem to be cheating towards the middle of the field, closing down those gaps even more, leaving a lot more real estate down the baseline. O'Neill certainly hasn't taken advantage of that thus far, but perhaps he'll be able to adjust and punish teams for trying to take away his singles with some doubles down the line. Hopefully Fannie First Base handles the breakup well when Mike starts seeing Debbie Double a bit more often.
I have zero hard evidence that this is actually taking place other than my observations (which aren't exactly scientific either, since MiLB.tv doesn't allow me to see the behind the plate camera), and no sources that have confirmed that anyone in the Texas League is employing shifts. But the Cardinals have made a point to start working with shifts in the minors to prepare players, as especially pitchers, for how they'll be employed as they move up the ladder. I would assume that other teams are likely doing the same.