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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: Opportunity Knocks for Tyler O’Neill

This is Tyler O’Neill’s best chance yet to become an everyday player. 108 is the magic number for his chances.

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New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It took Tyler O’Neill exactly one turn at the plate this spring to remind everyone what he can do. In his first at-bat, he crushed an offering from Mets starter Marcus Stroman over the left field fence for a homerun. The exit velocity was an eye-popping 115.3 miles per hour, matching the top EV of any Cardinal in the 2019 regular season. It was a thing of beauty:

It’s noteworthy because obliterating pitches at an exit velocity of 115+ mph is a rare skill. Last season, just 32 players accomplished the feat a single time, and only 16 did it more than once. Eno Sarris covered the importance of max. exit velocity last spring for The Athletic, channeling a Rob Arthur article the previous season:

Rob Arthur looked at this phenomenon for The Athletic last year and found that “For every mile per hour above 108, a hitter is projected to gain about 6 points of OPS relative to their predicted number.” Now, this may be true for PECOTA and not for other projection systems that include more Statcast data, but at the very least it’s eye-opening about the value of one really hard hit ball.

We’re talking about spring games so it doesn’t really count for Arthur’s projections, but it still bodes well for O’Neill. It’s especially important coming off of what was surely a frustrating 2019 for everyone’s favorite Canadian Cardinal:

2019 Stats

151 PA, .262 AVG, .311 OBP, .411 SLG, 5 HR, 16 RBI, 35.1 K%, 6.6 BB%, .308 wOBA, 91 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR

Nagging injuries, streakiness, and trips back and forth from Memphis haunted O’Neill’s season. He had a promising spring with improved plate discipline numbers, but those gains evaporated when the season began. He couldn’t find regular playing time early in the year and dealt with a right elbow injury in mid-April. That led to an IL stint and eventually a trip down to AAA in early May. He was a monster for the first few weeks in AAA but cooled off considerably before a hamstring injury sidelined him in mid-June. He returned briefly and lit it up for a week in Memphis when Marcell Ozuna’s finger injury forced the Cardinals to recall O’Neill.

In July, he saw his most steady playing time yet. Likely not coincidentally, it was also his most productive stretch of the season. In 97 plate appearances from June 29th through July 31st, O’Neill slashed .286/.330/.451 with a much-improved 6.2 BB% and 28.9 K%. He strained his left wrist at the end of July, which shelved him on the IL yet again. The wrist kept him out of MLB action until the last day of August. He only made two more starts from that point forward and his season ended with a highly unproductive 15 plate appearance thud.

The injuries and lack of playing time dampened his production both in St. Louis and Memphis, which explains his ZiPS projection for 2020:

2020 ZiPs Projections

447 PA, .245 AVG, .302 OBP, .468 SLG, 24 HR, 67 RBI, 32.9 K%, 7.2 BB%, .320 wOBA, 0.9 fWAR

He enters 2020 with a very clear path to becoming the everyday left fielder. If he shows well enough in spring training, he’s the obvious frontrunner to replace Marcell Ozuna. Opportunity is knocking as loudly as ever for the Dense Pillar of Meat. He has a reasonable enough projection, but consider that his projection in 2019 included a .252/.315/.498 slash line at a younger age. In other words, with the 2019 data added to O’Neill’s history, ZiPS now believes less in his power, or at least sees a lower floor that drives down his median projection.

All of this brings me back to that 115.3 mph blast against Stroman. Rob Arthur and Eno Sarris identified an exit velocity of 108 as the magic number. Admittedly, they were talking about getting as far over 108 as possible and less about frequency. Still, this small table tells a story:

Tyler O’Neill, Pct. of Balls in Play at 108+ MPH Exit Velocity

O'Neill % BIP 108+ MLB Rank
O'Neill % BIP 108+ MLB Rank
2018 10.96% 23
2019 3.49% 159
Decrease 7.47% 2

In 2018, Tyler O’Neill’s percentage of batted balls at 108+ EV was 23rd in all of baseball (out of 474 players with min. 50 balls in play). That percentage collapsed to 3.49% in 2019, 159th out of 476. He went from bordering on elite to average. 7.47% fewer of his batted balls were 108 mph or more off the bat. That was the second biggest drop in baseball, surpassed only by Carlos Gonzalez (7.61%). They’re the only two players to fall 7% or more.

Clearly O’Neill didn’t suddenly get old or lose skills. Look at the list of physical woes he had last year. There was the elbow injury, the hamstring injury, and the wrist injury. He couldn’t get healthy and it showed both in his overall production and his underlying numbers.

Even with the health highjinx, his walk percentage and strikeout percentage both went in the right direction. His sprint speed (29.9) was 10th best in baseball, so regardless of what happens at the plate, he should provide a defensive boost over Ozuna. If Tyler O’Neill is going to lock down left field, and I think he will, we’ll need to see more 108+ mph scorchers off of his bat. The closer to 115 against the Marcus Stromans of the world once real games start, the better.