After a breakout season in 2021, St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Tyler O'Neill had high expectations for 2022. After being ranked as the #1 left fielder by analysts, including Mike Petriello, Sarah Langs, and Vince Gennaro, the stage was set for O'Neill to continue building on his 2021 campaign. Unfortunately for TON, the early results in 2022 have not been what the Cardinals were hoping for.
During the 2021 season, O'Neill rose up the ranks of the lineup as his production remained consistent at an elite level. O'Neill's 2021 season consisted of 34 HRs, 80 RBIS with a slash line of 286/352/560 and a WRC+ of 144. For comparison, TON's 144 WRC lead the Cardinals, ranked ninth in Major League Baseball, ahead of perennial all stars Jose Ramirez, Freddie Freeman, and Giancarlo Stanton. During the Cardinals scorching 17-0 stretch, O'Neill batted third in every game. For manager Mike Shildt, it was understandable why O'Neill would hit third, to split the Cardinal corner infield stars in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado, who felt more comfortable in his natural cleanup position, and getting a rising star more at bats. O'Neill backed up his skipper's choice, as he slashed a monster 313/377/672 with twelve home runs and 30 RBIS in only 35 games in the third spot in the lineup. All signs pointed to the next great Cardinal left fielder, following in the footsteps of Matt Holliday, who posted a 139 WRC+ in his seven full seasons in St. Louis.
Coming into the 2022 season, new Cardinals manager Oli Marmol would open the season with the same lineup construction in the heart of the order, with O'Neill in between Goldschmidt and Arenado. Despite his success in 2021, O'Neill has struggled in the three spot, slashing a mere 188/258/263 with only 1 HR and 14 RBIs in 22 games. As a result, O'Neill has fell in the lineup, leading to inconsistency of where the former star hits within the lineup on a daily basis. For a player who had lofty expectations entering the season, the 2022 season so far has been a disappointment for Tyler O'Neill.
O'Neill's struggles in the 2022 season can be highlighted in a variety of different ways. With the lockout in Major League Baseball extending into the beginning of spring training, O'Neill's offseason routine may have been thrown off due to the inconclusive start of the season. Another element that may have thrown off O'Neill's mojo is his arbitration case entering the season. Due to the lockout, O'Neill, along with many other major leaguers had their arbitration cases continue into the season. The Cardinals filed for a salary of 3.4 million, while TON's camp filed for a salary of 4.15 million for the 2022 season. The arbitrator ultimately sided with the Cardinals on May 11. Although it is a very small sample size, O'Neill has slashed 177/177/177 in 17 ABs, including 8 strikeouts since the case was decided. After the decision was made final, O'Neill's confidence has looked fragile, leading to spot starts in the outfield for Corey Dickerson and O'Neill's newfound spot on the bench.
For a player who was a dark horse Most Valuable Player candidate entering the season, it is important to dig into the analytics to see why O'Neill is struggling. TON's natural profile consists of a high K % that has remained constant and a mediocre walk rate that has improved in 2022. O'Neill's swing rates back his improved discipline, as his OSwing% is slightly down from 2021. The glaring sign of Tyler O'Neill's regression comes from his batted ball profile. Born into a family of bodybuilders, O'Neill has always been expected to hit the ball hard when he connects while having a swing and miss problem. In 2021, O'Neill seemed to find the solution, ranking in the 94th percentile in exit velocity, 97th percentile in barrel percentage, and 93rd percentile in hard hit percentage. As a result, TON's production came with, as his xSLG and his xISO ranked in the 96th and 97th percentile with a weighted on base average of 384 and expected weighted on base average of 391, displaying himself as a star offensive player who added in contributions with his speed and defense.
At this point of the 2022 season, O'Neill has failed to replicate the production of the 2022 season. O'Neill's average exit velocity has dipped from 93 MPH to 88.4, his barrel percentage has dipped over six percent, and his hard hit percentage sits in the 29th percentile in Major League Baseball. TON's xSLG has dropped substantially, marking him as a strikeout hitter who currently is not hitting the ball very hard or far. O'Nell is also hitting less fly balls and more grounders and popups, which does not play to his strengths. There are some potential signs of improvement. O'Neill's weighted on base average is currently sitting at 248, with his expected number in 292. Despite that number being significantly lower than his 2021 total, signs show that O'Neill is not this bad at the plate. O'Neills batting average on balls in play is only 269, 60 points lower than his career average. There are also reports coming out that O'Neill has a sore right shoulder, which may be bothering his approach at the plate. For the Cardinals to be successful in the final season of the legendary Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina's career, finding the Tyler O'Neill of 2021 would be a huge step in the path towards a World Series Championship.