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Why is Tyler O’Neill walking more?

O’Neill’s improved walk rate of late would suggest an improved plate approach, but he may have the same approach as he did when he was not walking, oddly enough.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Back in early June, Ben Clemens wrote a delightful piece about how much Tyler O’Neill, to that point of the season, didn’t make any sense. His stats didn’t make any sense rather. He called him the two true outcome king. If you’re even passively familiar with O’Neill, you know which two outcomes those were: strikeouts and homers. At the time of the writing, O’Neill had a 2.6 BB% and 34.2 K%. He also had a 142 wRC+ with a very reasonable .338 BABIP. His stats truly made no sense.

Things have changed. He may not quite be as fascinating in the sense that someone having those K/BB numbers have literally always been bad and he was not, in fact, bad. But he’s posting a line that’s a lot more believable and sustainable. The day after he wrote that article, and I mean literally the day after, O’Neill walked. Through the first two months and a week, O’Neill walked four times total. O’Neill read the article and changed his approach.

Or did he?

Also, Ben actually posted it on June 9th and the end of it says all stats are through June 7th. So you know.... I wouldn’t put it past Tyler to have telepathy powers whenever someone is writing about him - Hi Tyler! - but barring that, obviously there is no correlation between the article and O’Neill’s stats.

Since June 8th, O’Neill has walked 10.5% of the time. He’s struck out 30.1% of the time. In modern day baseball, this is not at all unusual for a slugger. Oddly enough, his line is sort of more unsustainable. Kind of. He has a .356 BABIP. Despite that, his xwOBA is actually way higher than his actual wOBA. .396 to .362. And though the sample is quite small, O’Neill xwOBA was actually lower in his first two seasons than his actual wOBA and in 2020 it was only 15 points higher. So far, there’s not a reason to think he’s someone will underperform his xwOBA.

Actually you know what, this is factoring in his first slate of games where he clearly was a different hitter, approach-wise. He had a hot spring, wanted to make a strong first impression on the 2021 season, and decided to swing at everything. So let’s see the approach from when he got back from the IL to June 6th.

This doesn’t really seem like a guy who changed his approach so much as a guy who got better at the approach he’s always had. He’s chasing less pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%), swinging at more pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%), making contact on more pitches, and swinging and missing less. But all those “changes” are very minor, barely a difference at all. The contact% might be the same by the time you read this article.

But there’s another stat and that’s a stat that was pointed out in Ben’s article: Zone%. The amount of pitches he sees that are in the strike zone. Inexplicably, pitchers would not stop throwing him strikes early in the season. That has changed. It took them a while, but pitchers are throwing to O’Neill like they’re afraid of him, understandably so.

Statcast has an interesting section about Swing/Take. What it does is assign run values based upon how well you can swing or take a pitch in certain parts of the zone. There’s “heart” pitches which are right down the middle. “Shadow” which is where a pitcher is always trying to throw it, on the corner of the strike zone or just outside of it. Then there’s “chase” pitches, which is fairly self-explanatory, and “waste” pitches, which have little chance of being swung at, at least in theory.

At the time of the article I keep referencing, O’Neill was thrown a heart pitch 30% of the time. It’s down to 26%, which probably means he’s seeing a heart pitch around 20% of the time since June 8th. O’Neill is very, very good when pitchers throw it down the middle. On the downside, he was swinging at 80% of heart pitches before, it’s down to 78%, which means he’s probably swinging at about the league average rate of 74% since June 8th.

I suppose it’s not surprising a guy with O’Neill’s contact issues would be at his worst when pitches are hitting the corners. And of course, he still seems to be screwed by the umps when he actually manages to ignore a tough pitch just off the plate. It is interesting that despite swinging at slightly more chase pitches than the league average, he’s still at +7 there. Maybe everyone is positive there. He’s done a better than average job of ignoring waste pitches as well.

How I’m interpreting this stat at least is that O’Neill’s plate approach is a +6. Which is Statcast uses run values the same way Fangraphs does, means he’s adding about half a win from his plate approach. I am pretty sure that’s not the way they intend it, or maybe it is, but either way: he’s got a good plate approach despite all the strikeouts.

So no, I don’t actually think O’Neill’s plate approach changed. Actually let me correct that a little. In his first 29 PAs, before he went on the IL, he had an absolutely garbage plate approach that he quickly corrected after an IL trip. He had a 49 O-Swing%, 58.3 Contact%, and 26.9 swinging strike%. Again, this is probably because he swung at a lot of balls. Swing at more pitches out of the zone, you will not make contact much.

It is pretty crazy to me that what is essentially the same plate approach could produce such wildly different walk numbers. Turns out it matters what pitchers do. If they throw you strikes, and a lot of pitches in the heart of the plate, you will not walk at all. This was put the extreme case with O’Neill - hitters with his power just will not see that many pitches in the zone normally. But once pitchers starting respecting his power, he started walking. Imagine that.

Rarely is the answer to a hitter’s success or failure as simple as it is for Tyler O’Neill. Actually, you could probably say what I’m about to say about every hitter, but it’s especially true for O’Neill. Try your best to not swing at pitches out of the zone, take a hack at pitches in the middle of the zone. That’s the secret to his success. The more pitches he can avoid out of the zone, the more he’ll walk or get into favorable counts. The more he swings at heart pitches, the more damage he’ll do to baseballs.

So hey, maybe we can actually expect Tyler to walk 10% of the time from now on, which is pretty great news for his future.