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Embracing Tyler O’Neill

A 61-game sample of O’Neill’s was encouraging, even with some worrisome peripherals

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

He’s 23 years old, he can bench more than you, and he has his own t-shirt.

Tyler O’Neill was a premiere minor league masher for four separate seasons dating back to his time with the Seattle Mariners. His promotion to the Cardinals brought his biceps to St. Louis and gave the city a look at borderline 80-grade raw power. His swing and miss is apparent, but can he trim it down? If he doesn’t, are the peripheral aspects of his game enough for a promising everyday player in the Cardinals outfield?

The biggest knock on O’Neill’s game is his inability to hit sliders. Major League pitchers honed in on this and fed him a healthy diet of spin. If he was considered a qualified hitter, the 27 percent slider rate he saw would put him above Dansby Swanson for the league lead in percent of sliders seen.

Unfortunately, there still maybe be room for growth in this number. Sure, all pitchers don’t have a slider to offer O’Neill, but he saw only a slightly below average amount of fastballs in his 61-game sample. His .475 slugging percentage against heaters is going to stand out when pitchers plan against his bat. As a consequence, his 50 percent fastball rate is likely to fall lower come 2019 unless some tinkering leads to a better outcome.

O’Neill is his strikeout woes may be due to an inability to make contact. He would have a worse swinging strike rate (22.8 percent) than Joey Gallo if he landed on the qualified hitter leaderboard. Oddly enough, O’Neill only chases pitches outside of the zone at a moderately above average rate, not the 95th percentile where his swinging strike rate sits.

His dismal, 66 percent zone-contact rate is what buoys his strikeouts. The mark is nearly 20 points below the qualified hitter median of 87 percent.

Theories on how to improve a player like this mechanically are tough because of how compact his swing is. There’s always the possibility he steadily improves his discipline and contact rate as time passes, and I expect him to do so, but even with improvement he’ll still sit in the bottom quarter of the league. The improvement has to come gradually with time and reps, given the lack of a discernible tick that needs to be moved out of his swing.

There’s no excessive length or movement in O’Neill’s hacks. He doesn’t wrap his bat or lack the bat speed to catch up to velocity. His lower half is used mainly for timing with a simple pick up and put down of his front foot. His bat speed is good enough to torque his upper body into muscling balls when he’s fooled—if he can make contact. That’s the issue. He simply just misses pitches in the zone and especially prone to sliders off the plate.

Baseball Savant, MLB

But O’Neill never gave the impression he was going to be a polished, contact-first hitter with an average above .270. He’s here to scorch baseballs. Even in his small sample of games, he proved that. The righty has the highest barrel rate per batted ball in baseball among hitters with a minimum of 50 batted ball events. (Barrel rate is the percent of balls hit at the optimal launch angle and exit velocity—it’s a very good thing to be a leader in.)

He also sits inside the 95th percentile of average exit velocity, next to names like Cody Bellinger and Paul Goldschmidt. When he hits the ball, good things happen, but hitting the ball is often the problem.

O’Neill’s whiffs would be more tolerable if he took more walks, but given his free-swinging tendencies, coupled with his inability to consistently make contact, the long and methodical transformation of a raw and powerful hitter can’t come soon enough.

We’re at a point in the winter where projections don’t exist. Predicting now comes with little baseline to confirm your sanity with. I’m happy to take the risk. With mouths to feed in the Cardinals’ outfield, O’Neill’s playing time is up in the air—it’s also still October, so everything is up in the air.

Bader should start in centerfield, Ozuna should start in left field and Martinez will probably share time with O’Neill in right field. If we hope O’Neill gets into about 120 games, I would be comfortable hoping for 20-22 home runs with a below average on-base percentage. That expectation is consistent with his production from his 61-game sample. It’s a bet that pitchers don’t drastically adjust to find more holes in his swing, or if they do, O’Neill has adjusted as well.

O’Neill’s bat comes with a lot of negatives and some very pointed positives that leave you cautious, but hopeful. Considering the other two elements of his game result in more positives causes consideration of whether a 40 percent strikeout rate is tolerable in a role with ample playing time.

The 2013 high school draftee grades out as both a plus defender and baserunner. He was given above average speed grades all through his minor league campaigns, deceiving to the eye given his 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame. Statcast once again confirms for us how mobile O’Neill is, placing his 29.5 ft/sec sprint speed above the 95th percentile in the league, quicker peak speed than Victor Robles and Mike Trout.

This speed translates into outfield range. Fangraphs graded him as a plus defender in right last year. Directional outs above average has him in the positives as well, with praise for his ability to go directly back and in on balls. Year-over-year sustainability of defensive statistics can be swayed based on things out of a player’s control, but given O’Neill’s speed and age, I’d expect the instincts to maintain a nice defensive floor.

The complete package of O’Neill is encouraging given how favorably his aggregate production looks when factoring in all the positives in his game. He’s going to struggle making contact and fall prey to a hefty amount of sliders, but with age comes maturity. Expectations wouldn’t be brash to expect improvement year over year towards his peak age of 27 or 28 years old. Until then, 2-2.5 WAR per season seems like a fair expectation for a player this diverse of a skillset.