Tyler O’Neill can crush a baseball. Everyone has known that from the beginning of his career. However, this season, he has made improvements in his approach, and plate discipline, as well as his ability to his breaking pitches. The season is still early, but if O’Neill can maintain these improvements, then the Cardinals may have a gem on their hands.
The concern with Tyler O’Neill before the start of the season was that he strikes out too much and that his plate discipline is not very refined. However, in the first seven games of the season, O’Neill has made substantial improvements to his plate discipline, and subsequently, his strikeout rate. The slugger struck out at a 30.7% rate in Triple-A last season and a 35.1% rate in the MLB last season. However, so far this season, the 25-year-old has slashed his strikeout rate to just 16% which has helped him unleash his full potential at the plate.
This improvement seems to be part of an intentional change in O’Neill’s approach at the plate. The outfielder has dropped his O-Swing% from 37.2% last season to 25.9% so far this season. However, he has also dropped his Z-Swing% as well leading to an 8% drop in overall swing percentage from last season. In 2019, O’Neill swung at just over half (51.1%) of the pitches that he faced. This season, he is swinging at just 43% of the pitches that he sees. This means that O’Neill has been able to stop swinging at so many bad pitches, while his less aggressive approach overall has allowed him to hunt the pitches that he can do damage with.
This improved selectivity has unsurprisingly, led to better contact at the plate. The outfielder’s contact percentage has jumped nearly 20% from last season (60.8% in 2019, 80.0% in 2020) as he makes contact with 92.3% of the pitches that he swings at in the strike zone. Due to the small sample size of seven games, there is a chance that O’Neill is simply seeing the ball well right now and is on a hot streak. However, the underlying plate discipline numbers represent a change from the norm for the slugger and seem to correlate strongly with his improved contact. If O’Neill can maintain these numbers then his improved contact abilities will help him tap into his power more consistently, which could lead to a large amount of production. If this happens, then O’Neill will easily be the most productive outfielder, and one of the top hitters on the team.
Another encouraging sign from O’Neill is his ability to his non-fastballs. This could also be caused by his improved approach as he is laying off the pitches that he cannot hit and then attacking the changeups and sliders that get left over the plate. For instance, in game two of the doubleheader on Saturday, O’Neill hit a home run on a changeup that finished down and in. It was not even a bad pitch, but O’Neill was not fooled by the break or by the drop in velocity and he stayed on it the whole time and crushed it to left field. Additionally, the outfielder hit a double against a Steve Cishek slider in the same game. Also, O’Neill’s only hit in the first game was a single against a slider.
For somebody who has struggled with making contact in his career, it is impressive that O’Neill is hitting offspeed and breaking pitches so well. This could be a sign that O’Neill is maturing at the plate. With a more selective approach and better results against non-fastballs, O’Neill is becoming a more complete hitter, which makes him a much larger threat for pitchers. If O’Neill can maintain these improvement over the course of the entire season, then he could be one of the most productive hitters on the team. This will be something to watch now that Cardinals baseball has resumed, but the early returns have been encouraging.