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Tyler O’Neill deserves to start

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O’Neill has shown good improvement in his plate approach as of late, thus deserving of more starts.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Human nature will always interfere with the best laid plans of a well constructed roster. The behavior of a player behind the scenes may cost him starts or maybe his personality just rubs the manager the wrong way. Maybe the manager has nothing against him personally, but when it comes time to put a player’s name in the lineup, oh look I don’t really want to sit this other guy. Then of course, there’s the unpredictable hot streaks and cold streaks that will screw up plans. A manager can have the intention of starting a player 10 times in a month, but if the guy he’s competing with rattles off five homers, he’s probably not getting 10 starts that month.

For whatever reason, Tyler O’Neill appears to be in the proverbial doghouse of Mike Shildt. With Marcell Ozuna on the disabled list for 10 days, O’Neill got regular playing time in his absence, showing both good signs and bad in the process. Since then, he’s been relegated to bench duty. He’ll be one of the first bats used for pinch-hitting purposes. So I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to say he’s in Shildt’s doghouse. With the expanded roster, he could very easily ignore him, but he’s not completely.

Complicating matters is that O’Neill’s major league stats so far in his short career provide a Rorschach test on how you feel about O’Neill the player. You can look at the stats and see whatever you want to see for his future. He has shown great power with 13 extra base hits in just 131 plate appearances so far. (For context, that’s nearly 60 extra base hits over 600 plate appearances). He has overall been an above average hitter with a 110 wRC+. You could choose to look at those stats and think he has a bright future. Or you could look at the fact that he quite literally strikes out over 40% of the time he comes to the plate and walks at a below average rate. He has a ridiculously unsustainable line that won’t last if he doesn’t show improvement.

The original plan going into the season appeared to be to have Harrison Bader and O’Neill alternate between Memphis and St. Louis as the fourth outfielder. This got ruined when Bader pretty much hit the ground running and never faltered enough to be worth sending down, which left O’Neill as a sort of odd man out. Injuries have given him more of a chance than he otherwise would have gotten if everyone had stayed healthy.

When Yairo Munoz made the major league roster out of spring training and was immediately overwhelmed they sent him down in favor of O’Neill. The move made sense. He batted .388 with 6 homers in just 12 games in Memphis. His first MLB stint was quite short, lasting just over a week. During that time, he came to the plate 9 times, receiving just one start, and leaving without a hit to his name.

In Memphis, he slowed down significantly from his torrid start, but still managed a 124 wRC+ with 7 homers in 17 games. When Paul DeJong went on the DL, O’Neill was called up. He stayed in the majors for about two weeks and received much more playing time. He had a very confusing line. He came to the plate 32 times. He struck out in 15 of them. He also hit 3 homers and a double and managed a .290 average because his BABIP was .462. His OBP was .313 because he basically didn’t walk at all for the first two months of the season, either in Memphis or St. Louis.

He got sent down for Luke Voit, because the majority of the positives in the above line was in his first few games. In Memphis, he seemed to completely revamp his approach. He played all of June in Memphis. He came to the plate 71 times. He walked 15 times. His power didn’t remotely suffer either, with a .310 ISO during that span. He came back up to the majors for three games, and one start, while Dexter Fowler was on paternity leave, getting a single in six plate appearances.

O’Neill went on the DL when Fowler came back and then back down to Memphis when he was healthy. For the next two weeks, he was even more absurd than before. He had 11 walks, 11 strikeouts, and 7 homers in 12 games before he got promoted again. The trade deadline brought him back up to the majors. In four games, he had 7 hits, a walk, and 4 strikeouts in 13 plate appearances. Then he went on the DL with the mysterious groin injury.

When he came back and with Ozuna’s injury coming soon after, O’Neill got a good chunk of his plate appearances between August 14 and September 1. It was a mixed bag. He struck out 22 times in 52 plate appearances while only walking twice. He also hit 4 homers and had a 101 wRC+. When Ozuna came back, his playing time largely stopped. I did not blame Shildt. For the season up to that point, O’Neill had a 111 wRC+ with a 3.6 BB% and 41.1 K%. He had a .377 BABIP. If you have the contact skills of Joey Votto, you might be able to do that over a full season. O’Neill does not have the contact skills of Joey Votto.

But maybe, just maybe O’Neill needed some time to adjust to the new level. In O’Neill’s first 224 plate appearances in AAA in the Seattle Mariners’ organization, he was not good. He had a 65 wRC+ with a .268 BABIP. The one thing he was doing was walking, but he wasn’t doing much else. His ISO was .159, which is fine, but not when you have the strikeouts of a Tyler O’Neill. For the rest of the season, including his time in St. Louis, O’Neill had a 135 wRC+ with a .300 BABIP. He saw a huge boost in his power (.306 ISO) and essentially no effect on his plate discipline numbers.

The only way we can figure out if O’Neill is for real is to let him work through the adjustments. Sometimes players need a couple hundred plate appearances before they figure out the league. O’Neill might be one of those players. Or he might be a quad A player. We won’t know which if we don’t try.

But, you might say, we are in the middle of a playoff race, we can’t afford to play for development? Correct, however, there are two points I want to make in response to that. The first is that it’s not like the alternatives are THAT great. His main competition is Jose Martinez, who is a fine hitter, but whose defense appears to make him simply an average player. He has 1.7 WAR on the year and has obviously had recent struggles so it’s not like he’s a must start.

The other is Yairo Munoz and I’m a little mystified by Shildt’s usage of him. I’m not opposed to him getting starts in the outfield, but you know, like occasionally. He shouldn’t get every available spot start when Bader or Martinez gets a rest. That doesn’t make any sense to me. O’Neill’s bat is not his only value, which gives O’Neill a high floor. He appears to be very fast, and it’s backed up by Statcast, so it’s likely he’s an above average defender in the corners and a good baserunner. Munoz is probably not an above average defender in the outfield, though he’s also probably a good baserunner. Martinez is neither. These are the guys who are preventing O’Neill from starting.

The second point is that O’Neill HAS been improving recently, in very limited playing time. Here is an arbitrary endpoint alert. I am picking these purely for the betterment of my argument. You have been warned. But since September 11th, he has had 12 plate appearances. In that time he’s received just one start. He has 3 walks and 3 strikeouts. He has a home run and a double. But most importantly to me, he has three walks! O’Neill walked just 4 times in his previous 119 plate appearances. The adjustment is being made. O’Neill is recognizing that pitchers aren’t throwing him strikes.

I don’t think O’Neill is ever going to be a guy who doesn’t strike out a lot. In today’s game, it is possible to be a pretty valuable player despite that. Just look at Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. I also think O’Neill’s power is for real. He can easily be a .200+ ISO guy. (In fact, ZiPS believes he’s a .228 ISO guy). But the key to O’Neill being a good major leaguer is walks. You need the walks to compensate for the strikeouts, or he will be a sub-.300 OBP guy. Lately, he has been willing and able to take a walk. I think the Cards should give him more starts down the stretch over Martinez and Munoz.