There has been plenty of talk about how Tyler O’Neill improved his approach and improved his performance against breaking balls in 2021. This is certainly true, and these improvements helped O’Neill become the St. Louis Cardinals’ most productive hitter in terms of wRC+.
O’Neill’s new approach was one that was more selectively aggressive. Basically, O’Neill learned what pitches he could do damage with, and he targeted them aggressively. The outfielder loves inside pitches and he was incredibly aggressive on anything thrown over the heart of the plate or inside.
O’Neill did not completely avoid outside pitches. In fact, he still swung quite often against them, but there was clearly a lesser focus on pitches over the outside part of the plate. This aggressiveness against inside pitches was such an emphasis for the 26-year-old that he even chased pitches off the inside part of the plate over 50% more often than he chased pitches off the outer edge of the plate.
The Cardinals’ next best hitter was Paul Goldschmidt, who had a similar approach to O’Neill in that he also loved to swing at inside pitches.
There is a stark different between O’Neill and Goldschmidt, though. Goldy was aggressive when pitches were thrown in his wheelhouse, but his aggressiveness paled in comparison to O’Neill’s, who was more aggressive in every region of the zone except for high and outside the strike zone.
There is a benefit to O’Neill’s ultra aggressive approach — he did not miss pitches that were thrown in his wheelhouse. For a powerful hitter who can struggle with strikeouts, this is necessary.
By swinging more often, O’Neill may take fewer walks, but he also crushes more extra base hits. Thus, this aggressive approach is not only sustainable, but it may be ideal for O’Neill. Asking him to take more pitches and more walks means asking him to swing less. In an ideal world, he could do this by taking pitches off the plate and continuing to be aggressive in the zone, but that is much easier said than done. O’Neill has never been a hitter who provides value through plate discipline. He is someone who provides value by absolutely crushing the ball. Because of this, he needs to have excellent results on contact to make up for a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate. This is not a problem for O’Neill. By swinging at more pitches, he gives himself the chance to do more damage.
In 2020, O’Neill posted a career high 9.6% walk rate and a career low 27.4% strikeout rate. This led to a wRC+ of just 71. The outfielder also posted a career low swing rate of just 45.5%. The shortened season means that O’Neill took just 157 plate appearances, but it is clear that a high walk strategy is not the way for O’Neill to optimize his production. O’Neil’s best attribute is his power. He cannot use that when he is not swinging. This does not mean that he should swing at everything, but it does meant that he should swing a lot, and much more than the normal hitter.
By swinging at so many pitches, and especially pitches in his wheelhouse, O’Neill is able to overcome the effects of a high strikeout rate. Obviously this approach can get pushed to the extreme, but if O’Neill stays around his 7% walk rate and low 30% strike out rate, then he has a good enough hitting ability to remain a middle-of-the-order type hitter.
O’Neill seems to have found the right approach for himself, and if he can keep this approach, it is difficult to see him getting worse. In 2018 and 2019, O’Neill swung at a higher rate of pitches than he did in 2021. His problem in those years was that he did not make enough contact, as he struck out in 40.1% of his plate appearances in 2018 and 35.1% of his plate appearances in 2019.
O’Neill has always preferred middle and inside pitches. This season, though, he refined his approach. For instance, in 2019, O’Neill was a bit less aggressive on pitches that were low and inside and pitches that were high and inside. He was also more aggressive on pitches wide of the strike zone.
Since 2019, O’Neill has become more aggressive on pitches over the middle and the inside parts of the plate, while laying off pitches off the outside edge. Part of this is due to O’Neill getting better at recognizing breaking balls, which are usually thrown low and outside. By laying off those pitches, he is able to prolong his at-bat, which allows him to swing at later pitches that are thrown over the plate. Also, by seeking to do damage on practically every pitch thrown middle or in, O’Neill can prevent himself from seeing a nasty breaking ball later in the at-bat. This strategy has allowed O’Neill to reduce his strikeout rate and swing at better pitches; so, it is not a surprise that the slugger was much better in 2021 than he was in 2019.
For a hitter who can struggle with plate discipline but can also crush the ball, O’Neill has found the perfect approach. Hunt middle and inside pitches relentlessly and avoid pitches on (or off) the outside part of the plate. An ultra-aggressive approach is perfect for someone with the power of O’Neill, and by refining this approach, O’Neill has been able to reduce his strikeout rate to a manageable number, while making excessive amounts of hard contact (93rd percentile hard hit rate).