Approximately one year ago, I wrote a piece about Mike O'Neill's incredible ability to take walks and avoid strikeouts. While I marveled at O'Neill's proficiency in these two areas, several readers questioned how far this type of skill set would really carry him. Their pragmatism was justified given O'Neill's underwhelming profile: he was drafted in the 31st round, undersized at 5'9'', old for his league, not particularly fast, and positioned at a spot (left field) that typically demands more power.
Even so, O'Neill was Palm Beach's most productive batsman (according to his .400 wOBA) despite only twenty-four extra base hits -- none of which were home runs -- in well over four-hundred plate appearances. He accomplished this because he walked (15%) three times as often as he struck out (5%). He also enjoyed a pleasant rate of success on balls in play. Usually, thirty-six percent of balls in play don't turn into base hits, but O'Neill has sustained that mark for over one-thousand minor league plate appearances.
O'Neill couldn't crack any Cardinals top-prospect lists entering 2013 -- ours included -- because, while it was a fun little trick he had pulled off, it certainly wouldn't continue at the higher levels. Sure, he reached base in more than sixty percent of his first forty-two plate appearances in double-A last season but, being a small sample size and all, it was an easy feat to dismiss. Having said all of that, Mike O'Neill is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
The double-A Springfield Cardinals only have two players outperforming Mike O'Neill this season: Xavier Scruggs, whose nineteen home runs lead all of double-A, and Thomas Pham, the oft-injured toolsy outfielder who was promoted to Memphis over the weekend. Once again, O'Neill has an impressive wOBA (.380) produced by an uncanny ability to avoid strikeouts (6%) and take walks (17%), both of which are team-leading rates.
Mike O'Neill's approach becomes even more mythical when comparing his plate discipline against league average rates for Texas Leaguers. It's not clear who is compiling this data, so keep in mind that these percentages provided at Minor League Central are probably flawed. Still, the discrepancy in these numbers is large enough that I think they serve an illustrative purpose. In general, "O" represents pitches outside of the strike zone while "Z" represents pitches inside of the strike zone. If you're unfamiliar with any of these abbreviations, see the full glossary.
While O'Neill sees roughly the same amount of strikes as the average Texas League batter, he swings ten percent less often but makes contact fifteen percent more often. He almost never chases pitches out of the strike zone but makes way better contact when he does. He's even picky about the pitches he swings at inside the strike zone, nearly always making contact when he swings. His 4.08 pitches per plate appearance is tied for fourth-best in the league.
O'Neill has achieved cult status as a prospect thanks to FanGraphs' Carson Cistulli who has started creating GIFs of his rare home run swings (one, two). But O'Neill's name has also been surfacing in more serious corners of the internet as well. At Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh recently profiled O'Neill (subscription required) in an article that includes great insight from an AL scout who has tracked him since 2010, as well as terrific quotes from O'Neill himself, who boasts about his pitch recognition and admits to loathing strikeouts.
Lindbergh explained why conventional wisdom argues against O'Neill's chances for success:
Usually, the outlook for a player whose game hinges heavily on plate discipline without any accompanying power is pretty bleak. The expectation is that as the player approaches or makes the majors, pitchers won't respect his power enough to pitch him carefully, and the walks will dry up.
To his credit, O'Neill possesses a strong self-awareness, as evidenced by this FanGraphs interview conducted by David Laurila last November:
I know my specific skill set. i'm not a guy who is going to hit 30 home runs a year. I'm a guy that needs to get on base. My strength is hitting line drives to all fields and my approach is to sit on a pitch, and if I get it, I can't miss it. Fortunately, I haven't been missing too often.
The pitcher knows what type of hitter I am, and from the scouting reports, I have a general idea of what he likes to do. I know what I can do with the bat, and won't give in to the pitcher. I'm looking for a specific pitch and a specific zone. During the course of my at bats in game, that might change, based on what the pitcher is dictating. If that happens, I just go from there. You have to constantly be adjusting in this game. You have to keep your head on a swivel.
And in May at Minor League Ball, John Sickels commented about how O'Neill had, "one of the most extreme BB/K/PA ratios I've ever seen. He's 25 and as I said, he doesn't have standout tools and lacks power, but geez." Sickels went on:
Last fall I asked a scout who was very familiar with O'Neill about him. The scout shrugged his shoulders and said, "That guy breaks our methods. No real tools, no power or speed or arm, but he just keeps getting on base. I think he's an organization guy or a fringe reserve but I'd love to have him on my Triple-A team."
While I certainly understand the prevailing sentiment and rationale behind doubting O'Neill's chances to stick at the major league level, history just doesn't offer many comparisons for this type of exaggerated skill set. Mike O'Neill is like the position player version of Seth Maness, which makes him one of my favorite prospects to follow right now. With several prospects graduating from future to current redbirds this season, it's going to be tough to leave him out of top-twenty lists this winter.