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System Sundays: The Evolving Swing of Tyler O’Neill

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A mechanical history of the swing of one of the Cardinals’ most intriguing offensive prospects.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Hey there, everybody. Happy Sunday.

You know, Tyler O’Neill is one of the most interesting prospects in the Cardinal system right now to me. I wrote up a quick impression when the trade went down that brought him in to the fold in exchange for Marco Gonzales, but that was based on a vague notion of who he was from before (I admit to not following the Seattle Mariners’ system very closely), and then about half an hour or so of research after the deal was announced. I knew who he was, and the vague outline of his skillset, when the Cards picked him up, but had to scramble a bit to fill in the details.

I also wrote about him not too very long ago, when the Memphis Redbirds were playing in the Pacific Coast League championship series, using O’Neill’s postseason breakout as a launching point to both laud the Cards’ newest acquisition for putting up some monster numbers and get into a larger discussion of just how insanely crowded the Cardinal outfield picture really is.

So that’s twice I’ve written about O’Neill, and here we are again. Actually, you remember the column I wrote last Sunday? About how important (or not), a big bat acquisition really was for the Cardinals? That piece started off as this piece; a System Sunday article about Tyler O’Neill’s swing changes. As I was writing it, though, a funny thing happened. I started talking about the narrative surrounding the Redbirds needing a middle of the order bat as context for where we are with Tyler O’Neill, and at some point I realised I was 1000 words in, had a bunch more to say about the Big Bat need-slash-narrative, and had only barely mentioned the actual supposed subject of the piece.

So I changed course, just lopped off the first paragraph that actually did mention O’Neill, and made it a different article entirely. The result was a column that was actually different from my usual output, in that it didn’t have an introductory section talking about something other than what I was planning on writing about for real. You know, sort of like this discussion of how I changed last week’s article by just cutting out the first paragraph (or maybe two; I don’t recall exactly), and following my initial tangential thought is the tangential thought I’m forcing you to read about before I move on to the actual subject of the post.

And in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t do it on purpose, exactly. This is just how I write. And think. I have a habit of working backward from a subject, getting further and further afield, and then circling back. If you ever have a discussion with me about something, it’s pretty much a guarantee you’ll hear the phrase, “But back to the original question,” at least twice during the conversation. Just one of those things, I suppose.

Now that the initial section of the article dealing with the only tangentially related thing is over — in this case a discussion of how I always structure my articles in two parts, with the first being the section about the tangentially related thing you’re reading at this moment — back to the original subject, which is Tyler O’Neill.

The reason I find O’Neill so fascinating is — well, actually, that’s not right. It’s not one reason; it’s lots of reasons. There are plenty of very, very interesting things about his game. The light-tower power. The fact said light-tower power comes from a player who doesn’t top six feet. The occasional very good patience at the plate. The fact said patience doesn’t show up consistently. The fact that the Cardinals, after acquiring him in a midseason trade, pushed him to center field for much of the rest of the year. The fact he didn’t look bad playing there.

Most of all, though, is the fact that Tyler O’Neill, by dint of his place in the ecosystem of the Cardinals’ system, along with his particular set of qualities, is maybe the player whose future will change the most this offseason.

See, here’s the thing: right now, Tyler O’Neill is the best outfield prospect in the Cards’ system. He has more upside than Harrison Bader, who is probably his closest contemporary. He requires less projection than Magneuris Sierra. Randy Arozarena is the closest to him in overall quality, I believe, but O’Neill has more of a track record stateside, and a more defined shape. As much as I love the various pieces of Arozarena’s game, I still want to see it all together. Plus, Arozarena is dynamic and exciting because there’s a chance for five tools, but with O’Neill there is one absolute carrying tool to bet on, and having one quality to hang your hat on is a very good thing.

So O’Neill is the guy right now. He won’t turn 23 until late June, and he’s pushing right up against the big leagues. He’s also, depending on just what one thinks of the tools of Arozarena, the best bet the Cardinals have in the system right now to become a star. There are holes in his game, certainly, but he has legitimate star upside. As much as I like the hustle and the defense and the grit of Bader, I can’t say that about him. Go down to the low levels of the system and there are some guys with that kind of potential. But in the near term, O’Neill is by far the closest thing to star upside in the system.

There’s also the fact that, as the Redbirds look this offseason to try and land themselves a slugger to plop down in the middle of the lineup, there’s probably a better than 50/50 chance that if they’re successful Tyler O’Neill is going to find himself blocked to at least some degree. Let’s face it; the Cards are basically looking at two positions for the upgrade they’re angling to find: third base and right field. First base is a possibility, but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of potential movement at that spot, and as much as a certain portion of the fanbase seems to have decided otherwise, finding a significant upgrade over Matt Carpenter is not actually very easy to do. Now, that’s not to say finding a big upgrade over Jedd Gyorko will be, but there seem to be more candidates to go after at the moment, anyhow. Realistically, though, the majority of the big bat type upgrades we’ll be talking about all offseason, until something either happens or doesn’t, are of the outfield variety. We’re talking about Stanton, or Yelich, or Ozuna. Maybe someone comes along who doesn’t happen to play for the Marlins, tough as that sounds to believe. J.D. Martinez is the top free agent. There are a few others who could be on the move.

So Tyler O’Neill is fascinating to me as a prospect because he, of all the outfielders in the Cardinal system right now, is probably the closest to being the thing they need: a star-level bat. Now, he didn’t put up star numbers this past season, either playing for Tacoma in the Mariners’ system or once he joined Memphis, but there were flashes. The ability is certainly there. But the Redbirds really, really cannot afford to wait and see what develops. The Cards need a centerpiece bat guaranteed to make an impact right now, and there’s a pretty good chance that bat is going to play a corner outfield position. And, not-unsuccessful center field experimentation notwithstanding, Tyler O’Neill is a corner outfielder, and thus very likely to be impacted by that pursuit.

Beyond the numbers and results, though, I have to admit to also being interested in O’Neill because of how much he has evolved mechanically as a hitter since he was drafted. And this isn’t over a decade or more; O’Neill was selected by Seattle in 2013, so we’re talking about less than five years. Over that time, the swing has seen marked changes, and I wanted to break them down a bit to see what kind of direction this very interesting prospect might be heading.

First off, we’ll go all the way back to pre-draft 2013, back when O’Neill was still a catching prospect (yes, once upon a time he was a catcher back in British Columbia), who showed plus arm strength and surprising pop for his position and modest stature.

via Baseball America:

I really wish I could remember what I thought of O’Neill at the time, but I honestly don’t. I have him in my spreadsheet of players from that year, but I don’t have notes on any of them anymore. I know I looked at him at least a little bit, but I don’t for the life of me recall what my opinion was. That probably means, in all likelihood, I didn’t have a particularly strong feeling one way or the other on him.

Looking back, though, I have one thought: that is a loooong swing. He starts the hands up extremely high, which I’m not a huge fan of in general, and then loads his hands with the bat pointing almost straight at the pitcher. That’s a swing just built to fail against any kind of serious velocity, I think, even with good batspeed built in. It’s also a pretty flat swing, which would probably have made him good at hitting high pitches with some power, but not so much low offerings. A swing that forces the bat to take such a long route around would probably also end up chopping down into anything below the belt. I’m not a fan, in other words.

So we have O’Neill as a high schooler, the year before he was drafted. Fast forward a couple years, to the summer of 2015. At the time, O’Neill was playing in Bakersfield, in the High A California League, which might be the most notorious hitter’s league in the minors. The Cal League is where you find High Desert and Lancaster, parks that have achieved near-legendary status for what they can do to pitchers. The Pacific Coast League is known for some extreme hitter’s parks, Las Vegas and Reno and Colorado Springs the most well-known, but the Cal League is basically nothing but Albuquerques.

Power hitters love the California League, and O’Neill was no exception. He socked 32 home runs in just 449 plate appearances in that 2015 season, although the rest of his numbers really weren’t anything to write home about. He walked just 6.5% of the time that year, while posting a strikeout rate of 30.5%. That’s not good, and spoke to a player with serious pitch recognition issues.

via minorleaguebaseball:

Interesting. It’s still very much an all-or-nothing swing, and a long one to boot. Now, though, the stance is wide open, and the hand load is better. There’s still a lot of pre-pitch movement with the hands, but he’s no longer loading with the bat pointed toward the pitcher. The swing plane itself is wide and flat, very rotary, and again is going to allow O’Neill to punish anything around the belt, but it’s a very exploitable swing. It honestly reminds me a lot of Mark Reynolds at this point. O’Neill is a significantly shorter hitter than Reynolds, but the approach and mechanics of 2015 for him are similar, and I would expect him to end up with fairly similar results.

The fact his swing is also still very long here seems, to me at least, to be a prime culprit as far as why his pitch recognition is so poor at this point. With this swing, he’s cheating to get to good velocity, and is going to be very vulnerable to anything offspeed as a result. Capable of hitting the ball a mile, yes, but Tyler O’Neill at this point is an all-or-nothing hitter.

We now fast forward another year, to roughly this time last year, when O’Neill was playing in the Arizona Fall League following his outstanding 2016 campaign. Playing in Double A for the first time, O’Neill absolutely dominated, putting up an .882 OPS, 152 wRC+, and the best walk rate (10.8%), of his career. The power was down, as he hit 24 homers in 575 plate appearances and posted a .215 ISO, down from .297 the season before, but part of that could easily be explained by moving from the Cal League to the Southern League, where the parks are not so wholly welcoming.

Overall, it was a very good offensive campaign for O’Neill, even if his line was heavily propped up by a .364 BABIP that, while suggesting high quality of contact, was still unlikely to continue. (And didn’t, in fact, but more on that in a moment.)

via rkyosh007:

Wow. That looks almost like a completely different hitter, doesn’t it? O’Neill from 2015 to 2016 made significant changes to his swing, geared to correct some of his shortcomings, and the fact he was able to pull off those changes speaks very highly of both his baseball IQ and drive to improve.

First off, the hands. O’Neill here has dropped the bat to his shoulder, resting it flat, very similar to what Harrison Bader does. Actually, the bat itself is almost pointing slightly toward the ground, almost in a Paul Goldschmidt sort of fashion. He now loads his hands down slightly and back, with the bat still almost flat. It’s a hand load position much more conducive to contact, rather than a longer swing that’s going to lead to more swings and misses.

The stance itself is also significantly different now; it’s very wide, spread out, and there’s a bit more of a crouch. He’s still open addressing the plate, then squares up slightly, but there’s less movement overall now than where he was in 2015. His weight is on his back foot primarily, and he’s hitting from behind the ball.

Overall, the 2016 version of O’Neill looks like a hitter trying to make more contact, and improve his pitch recognition. The swing is shorter, the trigger less complicated, and so he doesn’t have to cheat as much to try and catch up to good fastballs. The swing plane is still a little on the flat side, but not in a bad way. This is a hitter with more than enough power naturally, trying to make changes to improve his plate approach and contact ability.

The downside? O’Neill looks a little stiff here to me, a little locked up. The batspeed is clearly still a plus, but he’s so spread out and...tense, is the word that comes to mind. Before, he was all bat waggle and big, loopy home run swings. Here, he’s coiled, which is both good and bad. Good because there’s power in that coil. Bad because he’s almost a little too constricted here, I think.

And now, we move forward again, to what O’Neill looked like late this season.

via minorleaguebaseball:

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a player who has actually improved, in a pretty tangible way, I think. The most recent version of O’Neill’s swing combines some of the better refinements he made prior to 2016, along with an increased freedom and fluidity in his route of attack to the ball.

The stance is still spread fairly wide, and a little squatty, but not quite as much as in 2016. He’s also squared himself up to the plate, rather than being open at address, and isn’t as much on his back foot. His balance in 2016 was much better than in 2015, and it’s even better here.

For me, though, the best part of O’Neill’s most recent refinements is a new hand load, where he loads his hands much lower than ever before, and starts his swing from lower, traveling up through the zone, before finishing a little higher than in the past. This, compared to his previous swing, is more cut from the fly ball revolution cloth, and is very similar in terms of plane to what someone like Paul DeJong does. I don’t know for sure, but I would expect that O’Neill now is probably more dangerous on low pitches than he was previously, due to where he’s initiating his swing from in terms of hand position. He still starts his hands up high, bat now pointed even more toward the ground, but he’s added movement with his hands to stay engaged, and as a timing mechanism. I don’t mind the extra movement, and love the way he loads his hands down much lower now than before.

The one potential downside here is that I do worry slightly about how much pre-pitch movement he has with his hands, and if it could lead to vulnerability to good velocity. Similar to the way Javy Baez struggles to get his hands started right on time occasionally, I do wonder if O’Neill will be able to get his swing started on time consistently. Hopefully that won’t be a concern, but it’s at least worth noting for now.

The results for O’Neill this season were a bit of a mixed bag, with good plate discipline and moderate power in Tacoma giving way to early struggles with Memphis, then big power and bad plate approach, and finally probably the best month of his career between the last couple weeks of the regular season and the PCL playoffs. Over the last two weeks of the season, O’Neill cut his strikeout rate to under 17%, and walked 9.3% of the time. In the postseason, he whiffed just over 15% of the time. He didn’t walk a whole lot, but when you’re putting up a .312 ISO that’s tough to complain about.

I find Tyler O’Neill to be a fascinating prospect right now because whatever the Cardinals do this offseason, it’s likely going to affect him, probably block him, probably force his career into a slightly different track. But I also find him to be a fascinating prospect because he has the kind of upside the Cards will be looking for before Opening Day 2018, if not the surety. And I find him fascinating as a prospect because he’s already evolved significantly as a hitter over a relatively short period of time. If you looked at him late in the season in 2015, 2016, and 2017, each time you would have seen a different player, doing different things to try and become more successful.

Improvement and evolution are a huge deal for me when I’m trying to scout a player. Talent is great, but adaptability is incredibly important, and incredibly underrated. It would see, to my eye at least, that Tyler O’Neill is a very adaptable player. The numbers this season weren’t in the stratosphere the way they were in 2016, it’s true. But the changes he’s made as he’s developed, I believe, have him closer to star potential than probably ever before.