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Tyler O’Neill continues an interesting trend for the Cardinals

The Cardinals seem to be stockpiling players like O’Neill

Milwaukee Brewers v Seattle Mariners
Yeah, this is the only pic of him we have. He lost this ball in the sun.
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The day is November 22nd, 2013. Fresh off a Wold Series appearance, the Cardinals make their first significant move of the winter. David Freese, local hero and pizza endorser, was traded along with Fernando Salas for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.

Freese had a perfectly fine season at the plate that year, hitting to a 105 wRC+. He played statue-esque defense at third though, as word on the street at the time was that he was dealing with back problems. UZR’s rating of his defense brought him down to a below-replacement level performance. While one year of defense isn’t enough to be confident in a metric’s rating, DRS also rated him very poorly. My eye test is weaker than both metrics, but I saw a fielder with both poor range and a poor arm. For the record, I’m glad this wasn’t the end for Freese. Even when he’s in a Pirate uniform and getting hits against the Cards, it’s hard not to smile. Thanks for game six always, David.

At the same time, Kolten Wong was MLB-ready, and while he hit very poorly in his cup of coffee in 2013, John Mozeliak and the front office was ready to give him the starting job. Of the two players going to the Cardinals, most the attention initially went to the big leaguer. Peter Bourjos was a defensive wizard who struggled with the bat, but showed flashes of being a good-enough hitter that - combined with the elite glove - could make for a great player.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Randal Grichuk was an afterthought in this trade. He was a former first round pick, and at age 21 he put up an above-average year at the plate in Double-A. He was certainly seen as a prospect, but not a top one. When he was called up, Baseball Prospectus thought his defense was inadequate for center-field, and his bat was inadequate for a corner. He wasn’t exactly tearing up the prospect lists.

Of course, Randal didn’t care about any of that. He struggled in 2014, but put his name on the map in 2015, hitting for a 137 wRC+, and was worth 3 wins in just 350 plate appearances.

However, the way he did it was incredibly extreme, to the point where it was hard to believe it could be sustainable. Grichuk’s non-contact game (strikeouts, unintentional walks, and hit-by-pitches) was one of the very worst in the game. He made up for it by being one of the best in the game when making contact. Results on-contact are subject to more streaks throughout the year, both hot and cold. Grichuk was able to run hot for all of the 2014 season, but he showed that he couldn’t do it indefinitely in 2016, falling to a 102 wRC+. Both years, he was one of the most extreme hitters of the year, as the gap between his on-contact wOBA (his wOBA when making contact) and his non-contact wOBA was one of the largest in the league. This year, the excellent results on-contact haven’t been there, and he’s posted the worst wRC+ of his career at 73.

Let’s rewind a little bit, back to 2015, a year that will likely always stand as Grichuk’s career year. Among Cardinals fans it will also be known as the only year that the now infamous Chris Correa ran the Cardinals’ draft. Of course, Correa probably didn’t have the final say. The Cardinals have a whole host of analytic tools, and that combined with their scouts’ opinions end up determining who the team drafts.

Anyway, that year the Cardinals drafted two particular players. One was Harrison Bader, taken in third round. The other was Paul DeJong in the fourth round. It so happens that both those players’ hitting profiles look an awful lot like Grichuk. Enough so that I’ve written about both of them being similar to one of VEB’s most-debated Cardinals.

In the offseason, I wrote about how tough of a transition it could be for Harrison Bader. His numbers at Double-A and Triple-A implied that his strikeouts and walks would be tough to manage in the majors. He’s been impressive in Triple-A so far this year, running a 124 wRC+, but the strikeouts and walks are virtually identical. If they don’t improve, he’ll need well-above average results on contact (about the top 20%) in order to pull off being an average hitter.

We don’t need to project from minor league numbers for Paul DeJong, as he’s played in the majors this year. He’s running a strikeout rate over 30%, and a walk rate under 3%. When I first wrote about DeJong’s troubling profile, he had 72 plate appearances and the second worst non-contact wOBA among those with 70+ plate appearances. I checked up again when he had reached 133 plate appearances. He was dead last among those with 130+ plate appearances. I won’t run it again, as he’s only had 34 plate appearance since then. However, both his strikeout and walk rate has gotten worse.

Now we arrive at today. Or rather yesterday, when the Cardinals and Mariners announced a trade. To be perfectly clear, I love this trade. Scouts have long wondered if Marco Gonzales’ arm action would ever allow him to stay healthy. Now they don’t have to wonder as much, because he’s had trouble staying healthy, and past injury is the best predictor of future injury.

At the same time, I agree with VEB scouting expert The Red Baron when he expresses significant concern that Marco will ever pitch well enough when healthy to land himself in the rotation. He possesses just one plus pitch, his change-up. While it’s a beauty when he commands it, pitchers typically need more than one pitch to make it through the lineup three times.

Add-on that his results in the upper minors have mostly been poor, and it’s hard to get excited about anything other than Marco possibly turning himself into a decent reliever, and even that isn’t all that likely. Indeed, when I wrote about the Cardinals’ stacked pitching prospect depth, I found 11 Cardinals prospects who the public scouting outlets have named as top prospects going into the season. Gonzales was not one of them.

This was a trade from depth, and from the bottom of that depth. The Cardinals received Tyler O’Neill in return, who has also seen his stock fall a bit. According to my aggregate prospect list, O’Neill ranked the 33rd best prospect in baseball, and worth an estimated $33.4M. In other words, before the season he looked more like a fair return for Michael Wacha than for Marco Gonzales.

Prospect rankings are only a snapshot in time though, and O’Neill is a good example of that. He failed to make Baseball America’s top 100 despite being ranked 38th the year before. He placed 53rd on Baseball Prospectus’ list, and he didn’t show up on their midseason list either (however, their midseason list was just a top 50, so it’s hard to say how much he was downgraded, or if he was at all).

The projections agree with the scouts on this one. If he were to be called up, Steamer would expect an 81 wRC+ in the majors. That’s down from a 90 before the year began. Over a full-season, that’s a drop of 3/5th of a win. Yesterday, Craig likened his current value to that of Harrison Bader, and I tend to agree. That’s just going off what the actual prospect evaluators are saying though, of which I am not one. For a lot of thoughts from an actual expert on the topic, check out The Red Baron’s take yesterday.

Like Grichuk, Bader, and DeJong, Tyler O’Neill has some contact issues. He’s struck out in 27.3% of his plate appearances, and that’s at the Triple-A level. Facing better pitching in the majors, Steamer expects a 31.3% strikeout rate.

Unlike those three though, O’Neill takes walks. This is his second consecutive season running a double-digit walks rate. The hope is that he doesn’t need quite as amazing contact to pull off being an MLB regular. Steamer projects a 7.7% walk rate, below the league average of 8.5%, but more than double DeJong’s rate so far and higher than Grichuk’s career rate. However, he also has the highest projected strikeout rate of all four.

Finding how to properly view differences between strikeouts and walks is one of the reason I started calculating non-contact and on-contact wOBA. Does O’Neill’s extra walks make up for the extra strikeouts? At first, it seems like it does. Here’s all fours’ current strikeout and walk rates at the highest level they’ve played at this season, along with their projected rates in the majors, and a projected non-contact wOBA:

Actual and projected non-contact numbers

Player BB% K% pBB% pK% non-contact wOBA on-contact wOBA needed
Player BB% K% pBB% pK% non-contact wOBA on-contact wOBA needed
Tyler O'Neill 11.1 27.3 7.7 31.3 .150 .441
Randal Grichuk 6.6 30.7 5.9 28.3 .135 .428
Harrison Bader 6.3 23.9 5.2 26.5 .130 .419
Paul DeJong 2.4 31.7 5.3 27.9 .127 .428

It would appear at first that O’Neill is the least hampered by his non-contact numbers. His .150 projected non-contact wOBA is still well below the average of .200, but it’s higher than any of the other three.

However, I added another column. “On-contact wOBA needed” is the on-contact wOBA needed to generate a league average hitting line. O’Neill needs the highest on-contact wOBA of any of these four to produce a league average line, despite the fact that he’s the best in non-contact situations.

But why would that be? At first I thought I must have calculated it wrong, but then I realized why: O’Neill has the highest percentage of his plate appearances end in non-contact situations. As I mentioned, the league average non-contact wOBA was .200. The league average on-contact wOBA is .367. Because O’Neill has more of his plate appearances end in non-contact, he has less opportunities to do damage, and he has to make more of those opportunities than the other three.

O’Neill may come in a slightly different package than Grichuk, Bader, and DeJong, but the conclusion is the same: he needs to have especially great contact quality in order to make his profile work. In fact, he needs to be even better than they need to be. Can he do that? Since we don’t have Statcast data from minor league games, I’ll leave that to the scouts at this point.

With these four players - three of them acquired relatively recently - it does seem that that we’re seeing a trend here. Obviously the Cards know about the plate discipline concerns. Every prospect has reasons for why they might never be successful in the majors, and for these players those reasons are fairly straightforward.

Perhaps the Cardinals believe they can project contact quality better than their competition. Maybe they have good reasons - whether from scouting, the stats, or both - to believe DeJong, Bader, and O’Neill could have the contact quality to make up for their deficiencies. Or maybe they have reason to believe those three can cut down on the strikeouts and/or increase their walks by making an adjustment that others like them are less likely to make.

Maybe the simplest answer is that the Mariners were looking for a starting pitcher, and made an offer that the Cardinals liked. The Cards traded one lottery pick for another lottery ticket, but one with better odds of paying off. Going by the public prospect lists, this is an easy win for the Cardinals. Still, I can’t fight the feeling that this is also a deliberate trend. Maybe they’re exploiting a market inefficiency here. We’ll have to wait and see.