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Tyler O’Neill’s Hot Start

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Parsing the fast start of the Canadian strongman. (More on that below.)

MLB: JUL 25 Pirates at Cardinals

Okay, yes. It’s super early. Even in an abbreviated season, four games really isn’t enough to draw any conclusions from. In the context of a normal 162 game season, we would currently be looking at about eleven games and trying not to say anything that could later be used against us when the small sample fairy leaves town and whatever she was sprinkling goes with her.

On the other hand, four games is certainly enough time to be very worried about the starting rotation, given that Miles Mikolas is now out for the season and Carlos Martinez didn’t break 93 last night against the Twins. Also enough time to be concerned with the offense, which has not looked particularly good the last two outings, after piling on against the Buccos in the first two games of the season.

Still, four games is stupid small. It’s such a small sample, in fact, that only a sucker would try to to suss out any trends, either breakout or breakdown, from four games. And yet, here I am, contractually obligated to write something after four games, So let’s see if we can’t thin-slice what I hope will be a trend, because it would be a hell of a boost to the club this season, and going forward, if it actually is.

Coming in to the 2020 season — both versions, actually; the hypothetical 2020 we thought we were getting, and the actual rump 2020 we’re seeing now — one of the biggest concerns-slash-goals for this Cardinal club was going to be working through the outfield, specifically the future of the outfield. The version of 2020 we were all looking forward to originally likely would have seen the front office and field management using the first third of the season (through about Memorial Day), to assess the outfield options, who was playing the best and who looked like a long-term fit, and then making adjustments, probably with Dylan Carlson in the mix to join the club and kick off his career. As it is now, with just 60 games total, the entire season has essentially been reduced to an outfield audition, with absolutely no loss of importance. Whatever happens this year, it is of paramount importance the Cardinals have some real clarity as to the direction they want to go in the outfield heading into 2021.

To that end, I think it’s fair to say that Tyler O’Neill is, in many ways, one of the most important players on this Redbird squad. Every outfielder playing for the Cardinals this year has something to prove, and every one of them offers something useful. Tyler O’Neill, though, could be much more than simply useful. O’Neill has as much upside as any young hitter in the Cards’ organisation, and his prodigious power could make him a legitimate lineup anchor going forward. On the other hand, his career has been a story of fits and starts so far, and he has yet to prove himself worthy of a full-time position. Two years ago, O’Neill dominated the Pacific Coast League, posting a 170 wRC+ over 23 plate appearances. He kept his strikeout rate below 25%, pushed his walk rate up over 10%, and slugged nearly .700. That latter number is the expected one; the former two are where we go if we’re trying to suss out just how good O’Neill might be.

O’Neill got the call to the big leagues that summer and performed fairly well in sporadic appearances; he ended up getting into 61 games at the big league level in 2018 (just three fewer games than he played for Triple A Memphis), but only collected 142 plate appearances. A plate appearance to games played ratio of less than 2.5 suggests a whole lot of pinch-hitting duties and late-inning defensive swaps, and a tough road to take for a young hitter looking to establish himself and begin to get comfortable at the big league level. The plate discipline numbers were appalling; Tyler struck out over 40% of the time and walked at a 4.9% clip, numbers which would be incredible for a closer, but are terrifying for a hitter. Still, he slugged nine home runs in those 142 trips to the plate, and ended up posting an above-average batting line even with the horrific strikeout to walk ratio, simply because he does so much damage when he connects.

If 2018 was a tantalising glimpse of what O’Neill could be, then 2019 was the frustrating half-step back which so often follows a player’s breakout. Part of the problem was, as is often the case, injuries. O’Neill spent substantial time on the shelf with both hamstring and wrist injuries, and anytime a player suffers through a season chopped up by injury it’s difficult to perform. Even beyond the injuries, though, it was just a difficult season for the Canadian strongman. (Every columnist is required by law to refer to O’Neill as a ‘Canadian strongman’ at least once in each article about him.) He got into 60 games, just about the same number as in 2018, but still collected just 151 plate appearances. Again, that’s a lot of pinch-hitting duties and partial games. Worse yet, rather than dominating in the minors, essentially standing outside the door like Lloyd Dobler, demanding to be noticed, O’Neill struggled even in Triple A. His walk rate fell to 8.4%, his strikeout rate ballooned to 30.7%, and his isolated slugging dropped from a superhuman .382 to a powerful but not world-changing .252. The sum total of all those changes? A 97 wRC+, down from 170 in 2018, essentially a showcase of all the reasons for skepticism when it comes to Tyler O’Neill.

The thing about O’Neill is this: we’ve seen the athleticism, the body is basically a meme, we know he can hit a baseball as far and as hard as anyone in baseball and has top of the scale speed (according to Statcast’s sprint speed rating O’Neill was in the top 3% of all players in 2018 and the top 1% in 2019), and we know that he has, at certain points in the minor leagues, shown an ability to tame his swing and miss issues and present a reasonable, if still strikeout-prone, plate appearance. What we haven’t ever seen from Tyler O’Neill is a consistent run of playing time at the major league level, night in and night out, giving him a chance to try and stake a claim to the type of player he can be at this level. There have been short little runs here and there, two weeks at a time, but we’ve never seen six weeks or two solid months of Tyler O’Neill, starting outfielder. And given where the Cardinals are as a franchise right now, and the kind of upside O’Neill brings to the table, giving him that run of playing time would seem to be one of the more important priorities the club could have this season. Going in to 2021 without having some clarity on Tyler O’Neill would be a huge failure.

To be fair, it’s possible O’Neill could fail. Not all players who get playing time take a step forward and excel; there are at least a few of us still waiting on the inevitable Tyler Greene breakout, if only he could get into games long enough to relax. Sometimes players just...fail. But you have to find out, when the talent is as loud as that of Tyler O’Neill.

Now here’s the part where I wander into crazy-small sample land and say some things that sound dangerously like conclusions, and which will almost certainly be dredged up down the line to criticise me for not knowing anything about anything when it comes to baseball. So let’s just jump in with both feet, shall we?

As always, we have to acknowledge not only the small sample size alert going off, but in this case the magnitude of the smallness must also be kept in mind. Still, there’s something interesting going on with Tyler O’Neill even over just the first four games, so with all necessary warnings against hyperventilation in place it’s still worth examining his early performance, I think.

We know O’Neill can do serious damage to a baseball when he connects. That fact has never been in doubt, and his two early home runs this season speak to that. When Tyler O’Neill hits the ball, the ball tends to know it. We have only eleven batted ball events for O’Neill this season so far, which is so few that even I can’t justify really talking about them, no matter how many caveats I throw in. It’s worth noting he’s barreled three of those eleven, I suppose, and his xwOBA on contact is .404, so pretty good. But again, we’re talking less than a dozen batted balls, so let’s just leave that for now, and agree that if Tyler O’Neill can hit the baseball a lot, chances are he’s going to have success, because he has always hit the ball very hard. Okay?

The more important thing, then, is O’Neill’s non-batted-ball outcomes. There’s a reason I mentioned his strikeout and walk rates so many times in this column; those two numbers, and the relationship between the two, have been the limiting factors on everything he has tried to do in his career. So that’s where we’re going to focus this spotlight.

On the surface, we immediately see something interesting. In his first fourteen plate appearances of this young season, Tyler O’Neill has struck out only once, for a rate of 7.1%. Now, we have to acknowledge two things: one, that sub-10% K rate is almost guaranteed not to last, and two, O’Neill has also only walked once in that timeframe, for an identical 7.1% BB rate. A ~7% walk rate is not going to make a player an on-base machine, so that’s not necessarily a positive development. The strikeout rate, however, absolutely is. To be fair, we’re far, far below the stabilisation point for any of these numbers, and I would imagine if we chopped up O’Neill’s career we could find other instances where he only struck out once in a four-game span. (Actually, I took a brief look at his game logs, and that might be tougher than I assumed.) Still, if we agree that putting the bat on the ball is the most important thing for Tyler O’Neill, then one strikeout in fourteen trips to the plate has to be very encouraging, right?

We can, however, dig deeper, and find more granular numbers, which actually tend to stabilise earlier, which is nice. So we’ll start with the Pitch Info Plate Discipline numbers at FanGraphs, then move over to Statcast to wrap things up here.

In 2019, according to the Pitch Info data, O’Neill swung at pitches outside the zone at a rate of 34.4%. That’s pretty consistent with his 33.5% O-swing% of 2018. This season? That number is just 23.1%. He is swinging at pitches inside the zone at roughly the same rate he has in the past, but his overall swing rate has dropped from 51.4% to 44.9%. So he’s swinging significantly less often, and the good news is almost all of that drop has come on balls outside the zone. His overall contact rate has gone through the roof as well, from just 60.9% in 2019 (that’s a swing and miss on four out of every ten pitches, roughly), to a healthy 81.8% (less than one out of every five). Both his Z-contact% and O-contact% have risen. At least in the very early going, Tyler O’Neill is swinging at fewer balls outside the zone, about the same number inside the zone, and is swinging and missing far less often at both types of pitches. That would seem to be a recipe for success for a player whose chief trait is an excess of damage on contact, no?

On to the Statcast stuff. According to their data, O’Neill has seen 49 pitches so far this season, or about three and a half pitches per plate appearance. That’s on the aggressive side; the league-wide average for P/PA in 2019 was 3.93, but again, tiny sample. Of those 49 pitches, 46.9% have been in the strike zone, which isn’t much different from what O’Neill saw in 2019. Statcast has Tyler’s zone swing percentage pegged at 73.9%, so they actually like his ability to swing at strikes slightly more than the Pitch Info numbers, and his zone contact% is a robust 88.2%. That’s just a little lower than the Pitch Info number, but at this point it probably amounts to one pitch about which the systems disagree one way or the other. Again, this is all very premature.

Statcast has O’Neill’s overall swing percentage falling from 51.1% in 2019 to 44.9% in 2020, and most excitingly of all, they show his chase rate on pitches out of the zone dropping from 35.7% in 2019 to just 19.2% this season. That is, to put it lightly, an incredible development, if any portion of it can be proven stable. A Tyler O’Neill who chases less than 20% of the time could be a special, special player. His overall whiff% has taken an even more dramatic turn, going from a rather ghastly 41.4% last season to a too good to be true 18.2% this year. The magnitude of that change is absolutely too large to be sustainable, but the point is this: in every plate discipline measure we have, including very advanced, granular measures that tend to become reliable fairly quickly, Tyler O’Neill’s approach to hitting in 2020 has been exactly what one would hope to see. That’s why he’s currently OPSing 1.107 (203 wRC+), with just a .111 batting average on balls in play. The liner he hit up the middle off Homer Bailey last night absolutely would have been a hit eight or nine times out of ten, but this time it wasn’t, and there have been a few balls like that already for O’Neill. So what has he done? Mostly just hit the ball into the stands, where there are no defenders. (Nor fans, for the moment.)

So am I saying that Tyler O’Neill is going to be 2020’s version of Cody Bellinger, where we see a high-strikeout slugger suddenly take this huge leap forward and improve his contact ability and plate discipline to elite levels? No, of course not. We’re talking about four games, fourteen trips to the plate, and 49 pitches. But, the thing is, when you look at a player and say, this is the sort of improvement he needs to make to become an elite player, then that guy shows exactly those improvements, even in a tiny sample, it’s difficult not to get excited. These changes don’t seem accidental, and if O’Neill can maintain even some fraction of the improvements he’s made going forward, then he might just answer all the Cardinals’ questions in the affirmative this year.