I think it’s safe to say that Tyler O’Neill is not exactly having a great year offensively. Certainly, he’s not having the season the Cardinals were hoping he would coming in to 2020. The club’s moves (and non-moves), this past offseason made it plainly apparent that sorting through the internal outfield options was a priority, and O’Neill was a huge part of that. When the Cards sent Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay in the Matthew Liberatore deal, it had a lot to do with what Tampa thought of the young Cuban outfielder. It also, though, had a lot to do with what the Redbird front office thinks of Tyler O’Neill. They held on to the guy who just might go all Aaron Judge and hit 45 homers some year, rather than another speed-and-defense guy whose offensive upside was very much in the eye of the beholder, and subject to pretty intense debate.
That bet has, so far, not worked out in the club’s — or O’Neill’s — favour. As of this writing, Tyler O’Neill’s offensive output for the season has been weak, to the tune of a .180/.267/.376 triple slash line, which translates to just a 75 wRC+. That is obviously less than ideal, but what is really strange is the way in which O’Neill has fallen short of expectations. If one were to look at Tyler O’Neill’s offensive history and guess how he could miss, you would likely guess that poor plate discipline would be the culprit. At various times throughout his career, O’Neill has shown reasonable patience at the plate, a willingness to take a walk when the pitch he wants doesn’t show up, but at all times strikeouts have been an issue. You expect that from power hitters, of course, but it’s still generally the big concern, and O’Neill was no exception.
Through the minors, O’Neill’s strikeout rates hovered in the 27-31% range, generally speaking. That’s not extreme, but it’s pretty high. The bigger issue was that his walk rate varied pretty widely, sometimes dipping down into the 6-7% range. A hitter striking out ~28% of the time can be plenty productive if he’s walking in 10-11% of his plate appearances, but you get down to 7%, and things start to get a little dicey. More worrisome still were O’Neill’s plate discipline numbers in the majors. Subject to small caveats, of course, but in O’Neill’s first two partial major league seasons he whiffed at 40.1% and 35.1% rates, respectively. Combine those numbers with walk rates of 4.9% and 6.6%, and you have a recipe for a player who just doesn’t get on base enough to be valuable, even if he is hitting a bunch of homers. Chris Carter could hit home runs as well as anyone, and he still ran out of jobs eventually.
Given those numbers, the bad version of Tyler O’Neill, muscle man of the North, probably looked something like the bad version of Randal Grichuk’s offensive profile. A 5:1 or even 6:1 strikeout to walk ratio, low on base percentage, and lots of power, but still not quite enough power to make up for those other shortcomings.
Instead, what we’ve gotten is a bizarro world Tyler O’Neill, in which his plate discipline has been just fine (not great, mind you, like it was in the season’s early days before the corona train came through town), but everything else has gone wrong. O’Neill’s strikeout to walk ratio is about 3:1, which is entirely acceptable for a power hitter, but the problem is this: he hasn’t been a power hitter this year. A .195 isolated slugging percentage is fine for some hitters, but not for a guy relying on his pop to drive his production.
The biggest issue for O’Neill, though, has been not just the power outage, but an overall lack of results on batted balls. His average on balls in play for the season is still a horrid .198, and while we are definitely still in small sample territory (and will never leave it this season, obviously), 150 PAs is a long time to drag around a BABIP that low. The culprit appears to be a lot of medium contact, both on the ground and in the air. He’s hitting more grounders this year than in the past, but the real issue is that way too much of O’Neill’s contact this season has fallen in that middle range, where every ground ball is a routine out, and every fly ball is a can of corn catch five foot short of the warning track. His line drive rate is just 15.1%, and his barrel percentage is just 8.6%.
To be fair, that’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s still not good. Among hitters with at least 25 batted ball events tracked in 2020, O’Neill’s barrel% ranks 155th out of 429. That’s probably okay for guys like Xander Bogaerts and Trevor Story, both of whom are near him in the rankings, but those guys have better ratios of non-contact events and also just happen to be shortstops. For a more all-or-nothing hitter and corner outfielder like O’Neill, that’s not really territory where one wants to live. Of particular note, to me at least, is O’Neill’s low exit velocity on ground balls compared to the players surrounding him in the rankings. Most are above 85 mph, none are below 80. Except for Tyler, who sits at 79.8 mph average exit velocity when he hits the ball on the ground.
In other words, hitting the ball has not really been the issue for Tyler O’Neill this year. Hitting the ball hard has been.
So that’s it, right? The Tyler O’Neill experiment has been, if not a complete failure, at least a failure for this season, and looking more and more like a failure of the Cardinals’ front office to properly assess and scout their own talent, hanging on to a guy they should have moved when he had value.
Well, just hang on a second.
See, this column isn’t meant to be negative. Or, at least, not entirely negative. Yes, O’Neill’s 2020 season has been largely disappointing, particularly after he got off to such an exciting start before the Cards’ quarantine. However, on the other side of the ball, we find something really intriguing. Of course, if small sample warnings are in effect for the offensive stuff, then everything we talk about from here on in has big flashing lights on it, and maybe a siren repeating loud messages in multiple languages regarding the reliability of these tiny samples. Still, let’s look at some positive developments for Tyler O’Neill in 2020.
By every measure we have, Tyler O’Neill has been not just a good defender, but an elite one. He is also, it should be said, not just fast, but insanely fast.
Let’s start with that speed first, shall we? O’Neill’s sprint speed this season sits at 29.6 ft/second, which puts him in the top 1% of all runners in baseball. He and Harrison Bader are neck and neck for the title of fastest Cardinal, and by my count there are only six players clearly above O’Neill. Those players are Tim Locastro, Byron Buxton, Adam Engel, Roman Quinn, Anthony Alford, and Trea Turner. Some of those guys are good, but there are also a couple of one-dimensional speed specialists in there. O’Neill is the fastest left fielder in the game by a comfortable margin; the only other left fielders who eclipse 29 ft/sec are Sam Hilliard at 29.1 and Randy Arozarena at 29.0. It is a sad truth that speed has much less impact on the game in general than one might hope, but it’s still really nice to have on one’s team all the same.
More impactful is defense, and here is where we really start to get into some intriguing territory. As I said, small sample warnings all to hell and back, but let’s just pretend for the moment. By defensive runs saved, O’Neill has been a +9 defender this season. By plus/minus, he has been a +9 defender this season. UZR/150 doesn’t think he’s been quite as otherworldly, but still sees an elite 12.0 runs saved over the course of a full year. Now, we have to remember that players, even outfielders, are compared to the players at their position only, so O’Neill is essentially lapping the field, where the field is comprised of nothing but left fielders. And left field, of course, is where a lot of teams stash their weakest defensive player(s), though that is not quite as true these days as it once was. There are still some bad defenders out there, but you have very few Adams Dunn to bring down the pack average.
All we have here is a tiny sample, not at all reliable going forward. Still, each system sees O’Neill as a plus, and a big plus to boot. Yes, we should mentally regress those numbers heavily, but it’s still far better than the alternative. It also, I should say, lines up well with a player who just happens to be one of the fastest players in baseball, to expect a plus defender in the outfield.
However, we can also go over to the Statcast numbers, which are much more granular and should be more reliable and predictive in smaller samples. Still not ideal, admittedly, but better. So what does Statcast have to say?
Tyler O’Neill in 2020 has been the best left fielder in baseball, preventing three runs on the season, adding four percentage points to his expected catch percentage, and notching four outs above average. The top five outfielders in baseball this year, in terms of outs above average, are as follows: Jackie Bradley Jr., Luis Robert, Kevin Kiermaier, Trent Grisham, and Tyler O’Neill. Four of those players are center fielders, and then there’s O’Neill. He’s in the 95th percentile in OAA, but somewhat surprisingly only in the 66th percentile in terms of outfield jumps. In other words, his first step is good but not elite, but his closing speed allows him to track down balls no other left fielder is really getting to regularly.
To be fair, O’Neill has not looked this good defensively in the past. The speed and raw tools have definitely been there, but he has never played at such a high level in the field. Then again, this is the first real run of consistent playing time he’s gotten in his career (and even this has been impacted by his offensive struggles), and as a converted catcher in the minors he didn’t start playing the outfield consistently until a couple of years ago. I’m not sure I’m buying into Tyler O’Neill as the new Alex Gordon, but I have to say that the numbers in this case largely match up with how he looks by my eye test.
So what does this all mean? Well, it’s a funny thing, because the Cardinals traded for O’Neill looking for a potential middle of the order bat, a guy with a Popeye build who could slug homers like nobody the organisation had available to them at the time. Back then, O’Neill’s viability in the outfield was a little bit in question, and his overall athleticism wasn’t necessarily seen as a plus. He was a good athlete but maybe not a great one, and what he really did more than anything was mash baseballs the way you would expect from a guy built like, well, Tyler O’Neill. The Cardinals saw a more well-rounded player and believed in his upside, and made the trade. Three years later, and their scouting report on him has been both a success and a failure. The offensive upside everyone agreed was there has not, as of yet, shown up in the big leagues, and the major failing for O’Neill this season has been a lack of power, which is almost unimaginable when you look at him. Meanwhile, he is one of the fastest players in the game, full stop, and looks as if he may be turning into an elite defender.
The Cardinals tried to trade for Khris Davis, and instead what they got was a second Harrison Bader. What’s interesting is that this version of Tyler O’Neill actually has an even higher ceiling than the one-dimensional masher he was supposed to be; a guy who can run and defend the way he can could be an All-Star or even MVP candidate if he puts up offensive numbers. Problem is, offensive numbers are what we’re lacking from O’Neill in 2020. Somehow the guy built like a literal action figure is, at least this season, just another speed and defense guy.