I considered calling this one “It’s Tyler O’Clock,” but I actually wanted you all to click on it.
And here we are.
By the surface numbers, Tyler O’Neill had a fruitful stint in St. Louis earlier this season. He had a 103 wRC+. Good, right? Technically. It was propped up entirely by a .500 slugging percentage that masked an abysmal .268 OBP and a whopping 43.9% K%. His consecutive home runs over a three-game stint were very fun to watch and, at the time, the performance was a welcome change from a power-sapped outfield.
But there were some pretty large holes in O’Neill’s approach, and he was getting figured out quickly.
So, he returned to Memphis, where he continued to show that it’s time to let Tyler try his hand at a long stint in the majors.
I’m not attacking roster composition here. It’s obvious that the Cardinals currently have two outfield regulars and a platoon split in right field that would make it pretty difficult to get O’Neill consistent playing time. It’s also apparent that the impending return of Paul DeJong warrants an active roster move — one that won’t be easy, given the performance Yairo Munoz has put up since being recalled on May 19 (102 wRC+). There’s always the option of carrying 12 pitchers instead of 13, but it’s pretty clear at this point that Mike Matheny needs eight relievers to feel comfortable, even if they aren’t all used consistently.
No, this wouldn’t create an easy situation at all, but the slugging young outfielder isn’t leaving much of a choice for the front office, given how he’s produced for the Redbirds this season. It’s been a combination of improving upon the flaws in his game that handicapped him when exposed to major league pitching and somehow delivering even more on the tools that highlight his scouting report.
Slugging, Slugging, and More Slugging
“More Power!” is a 1969 album by jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon. It’s also, apparently, the conclusion at which O’Neill arrived when asking himself what could take his game out of the minors.
As of the end of play Tuesday, O’Neill owns a .647 slugging percentage. That’s good for second in all AAA leagues, behind only the .743 SLG owned by the Angels’ Jabari Blash, who is currently the Mike Trout of the minors’ highest level. That .647 SLG is far and away the highest number O’Neill has posted in his professional career — the closest he’s posted at any level with consistent play was .558 with the Mariners’ High-A affiliate. For comparison’s sake, J.D. Martinez is currently slugging .646. Yes, very different levels of competition, but just to create a point of reference.
O’Neill’s ISO is also through the roof. At .335, he ranks third among Triple-A hitters. He’s never posted a season-long mark at or above .300. Only four major league hitters have an ISO above .300. His 16 home runs are good for third-best, and he’s averaging a homer every 12 plate appearances. It might be time for FanGraphs to tick O’Neill’s GamePower rating up from that 50 current to the 55 potential.
Or higher. Probably higher.
On top of the raw power numbers, O’Neill is showing an increased propensity for hitting the ball in the air. O’Neill’s GB/FB has been under 1.00 since his move to A-ball in 2014, but it’s moved to its lowest point in his career in 2018. O’Neill’s GB/FB ratio is currently 0.67, meaning he’s producing nearly one and a half flyballs for every groundball he hits. That number is good for 10th among AAA batters. Unsurprisingly, his GB% ranks 13th. The more a hitter with power like O’Neill’s hits the ball in the air, the greater the chances for damage. Tyler has definitely succeeded in causing more damage.
More Contact, Fewer Ks
The power uptick isn’t the only change. An area of O’Neill’s approach that’s often been criticized has shown improvement as well: His strikeout rate. Regardless of the level, O’Neill hadn’t logged a K% under 25% since his 23.3% in his rookie ball debut in 2013. Through nearly 200 PA at Memphis, O’Neill’s strikeout rate is 23.4%. That plays — especially with power like his. In fact, his BB%/K% (8.3%/23.4%) is again strikingly similar to J.D. Martinez’s (9.5%/23.6%).
It’s not only the decrease in strikeouts, though. Striking out in less than one-fourth of his plate appearances is great. What’s better is that O’Neill has greatly boosted the number of balls in play that drop for hits. He’s hitting .312 on the year, which is 17th across all AAA leagues. Tyler hadn’t hit over .300 since the same year his K% was so low: 2013, in his first year. O’Neill had a BABIP above .300 every season until his AAA debut, where his production fell off trying to adjust to the competition level. It’s back up to .327, which falls well within his averages prior to 2017. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have plate discipline numbers for the minor leagues (yet), but one would have to imagine that O’Neill is being much more selective with pitches, given the decrease in Ks and increase in hits. To not only see an increase in contact ability, but even a boost in already-plus power, gives the makings of an elite hitter.
The metrics assessing cumulative performance at the plate agree that O’Neill has been excellent. His wRC+ (154) is tied for eighth. His wOBA (.423) is tied for sixth. OPS (1.017) tied for fourth. Any way you slice it, the numbers say O’Neill has been one of the top performers at the minors’ highest level. He’s even continues to show some baserunning savvy, picking up three steals in four attempts.
It doesn’t seem O’Neill has much left to prove in Triple-A. It isn’t a simple procedure finding a way to plug him in. But, for a team ranked 17th out of 30 in outfield WAR, a player performing like O’Neill would potentially be an injection to the lineup that could keep the recently rediscovered offense rolling.
Plus, he rocks the high socks. Who doesn’t dig the high socks?