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Tyler O’Neill’s Wild Ride

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There’s a good hitter here trying to find his way out, but it’s been an odd three seasons for the Dense Pillar of Meat

MLB: JUL 24 Pirates at Cardinals

The story for the Cardinals this off-season, other than the potential for front office thrift, is going to be how much they can improve the offense for 2021. As was the case entering 2020, much of that story will be told by how much they can rely on their internal options. Few Cardinals have the potential to improve at the plate the way Tyler O’Neill does. The former top 100 prospect’s minor league production ranged everywhere from a 106 to a 170 wRC+. That thump has yet to translate at the major league level. His three partial MLB seasons have seen wild variance, with a seemingly completely different hitter taking the field each season. Today, let’s take a look at where the Dense Pillar of Meat™ has been and where he needs to improve.

That O’Neill has put up very different results each year in St. Louis is wild enough in its own right. As a prospect, he had a strong brand. He was toolsy, but not quite enough to stick in centerfield. He launched mammoth homeruns towards Mars, but struggled with enormous strikeout rates. If he ever improved his plate discipline, it was going to be an “Uh oh, Happy learned how to putt” moment.

His arrival in 2018 was true to his minor league performance. His 40.1% K rate (third worst in MLB, min. 100 PA) and his 4.1% walk rate were ghastly. However, his max EV (113.1) and hard hit percentage (45.3%) were upper quartile. His barrel percentage (21.3%) was second best in the game, and his average exit velocity was 25th best. He was a Three True Outcomes monster. His 116 wRC+ along with the underlying metrics and his age (23) promised that better days were ahead, or at least that he had earned his 116 wRC+.

In 2019, he improved his walk and strikeout rates, but his barrel rate, hard hit percentage, average EV, and max EV all fell. His ISO fell from .246 to .149. He had become a generic fourth outfielder with thump. This despite the slightly better plate discipline compared to the Three True Outcomes monster of his rookie season.

In his spring preview this season, I discussed a major decline in his percentage of batted balls over 108 mph from 2018 to 2019. Despite modest gains in plate discipline, his overall production dipped to a 91 wRC+. Admittedly, it was also an injury-plagued season, cut short just as he was receiving regular playing time and finding his stride in place of the injured Marcell Ozuna.

He continued the odd character arc in 2020. He didn’t hit a single pitch over 108 mph. His walk rate improved again, now up to 9.6%. His strikeout rate also improved, down to 27.4% from that ghastly 40.1% two years prior. Had Happy actually learned to putt? He recovered a little bit of his hard hit and barrel rates, and his ISO rebounded to .187. However, his maxEV and average EV both continued to fall. Even with the ISO rebound, it was only barely in the top half of the league, hardly befitting a hitter whose calling card was once prodigious power. His BABIP was just .189, fifth worst in baseball. Before anyone cries bad luck, Statcast has his expected batting average at .196, only marginally better than his actual .173. If he was robbed by the BABIP Goblin, Statcast doesn’t believe it was by much. His splendid defense saved plenty of value, but nobody expected Tyler O’Neill to become the left field equivalent of Kevin Kiermaier.

These graphs tell conflicting stories. This:

is what you want to see from a young hitter. This, however, is not:

He has had what amounts to one full season (450 plate appearances), spread out over three. He has slashed .229/.291/.422, put up a 91 wRC+, and amassed a modest 1.9 fWAR in 450 plate appearances. You’d think that would be a good place to start, but his production has all been so different from year to year. He hasn’t had a normal year- one not plagued by injuries or... whatever last year’s small sample, pandemic theater was- since 2018. That complicates everything.

We’ll put aside his defense (it was great!) and speed (7th best sprint speed in baseball!) and focus solely on his bat. Why has Tyler O’Neill gone from a generous ZiPS comp with Jesse Barfield (pre-2019) to a nasty ZiPS comp to Pedro Munoz (pre-2020) to whatever he gets this year, which is sure to be even less flattering? Allow me to enter another graph into evidence:

The R-squared is hardly meaningful, but from the start of his career until his late July injury in 2019, his contact rate and his production had a positive correlation. Since then, even though his contact rate has improved dramatically (up 9%), his wRC+ has fallen. There’s a negative correlation between his rolling 30-game contact rate and his wRC+. He’s making more contact, but it’s far less effective. The same holds true for his ISO. More contact, less thump. It’d be easy to stop here and conclude that being a more selective hitter has made him a less impactful hitter. That he’s swinging at the wrong pitches. What does Swing/Take say about that? Here’s 2018 compared to 2020. I’ve omitted 2019, but just know that it was very similar to 2020.

He’s been more effective on chase and waste pitches recently because he’s now taking more of those. The problem is that he’s not doing as much damage in the shadow zone, basically the edges of the strike zone. That’s true for both the pitches he takes and the ones where he swings. He’s also doing far less damage on the meatball pitches, in the heart of the zone, than he did in 2018. A small part of that is that he’s taking more of those pitches, though it’s a small amount. It comes out to about 3 pitches in 2020 vs. 2018. The problem is that his contact hasn’t been as impactful on those pitches. Let’s try this with a table:

Tyler O’Neill, Heart and Shadow Zone Production

Year Zone ISO xBA wOBA EV (MPH) LA (°)
Year Zone ISO xBA wOBA EV (MPH) LA (°)
2018 Heart 0.455 0.345 0.469 94.8 23.6
2019 Heart 0.196 0.283 0.308 94.9 21.5
2020 Heart 0.349 0.291 0.353 94.0 18.9
2018 Shadow 0.114 0.225 0.288 84.5 16.0
2019 Shadow 0.100 0.138 0.240 88.4 20.9
2020 Shadow 0.061 0.118 0.154 81.4 13.6

He had a small rebound in the heart of the zone this year, even if it didn’t match his 2018 heights. The shadow (edges) of the strike zone are where his production on contact collapsed the most. Admittedly, he wasn’t particularly good in the shadow zone in 2018, either. In fact, the league in general is dreadful in the shadow zone (.127 ISO, .269 wOBA, 86 EV since 2018), but O’Neill’s production there lagged far behind even the poor league-wide level.

Let’s look at one final piece- his production by year vs. pitch types.

It’s simplifying things too much, but his production has dropped on the soft stuff (changeups, curveballs, sinkers), while his production against sliders has improved. He’s lost some punch against four-seamers, but the drop isn’t as pronounced.

That’s a lot going on. He’s clearly an evolving hitter working on his craft, ergo the wildly different results from year to year. There seems to be a good hitter in here desperately trying to get out, but one in need of a lot of adjustments. Simply improving his recognition of pitches on the edge of the strike zone the way he improved on chase and waste pitches would represent a significant step. I suspect much of his lost production is the result of swinging at pitches in the shadow zone, resulting in poor contact, instead of waiting out and hammering meatballs the way he did in 2018. There’s also a need for a middle ground between his 2018 and 2019-2020 iterations. Improved plate discipline, contact numbers, and the ability to make contact on the hard stuff are all great. However, it can’t come at the expense of his prodigious power and ability to demolish off-speed pitches.