In the matter of Oli Marmol vs. Tyler O’Neill, I have a theory.
And I’m sticking to it.
If O’Neill generates lightning and thunder with his bat, no one will care about how fast he’s running. Not much, anyway.
This doesn’t imply it’s OK for O’Neill to jog. But what are we talking about here? Early this season, is O’Neill sprinting as fast as he did in 2022? No. But he’s still bringing above-average speed to the job.
Last season O’Neill’s sprint speed of 29.8 feet per second placed him in the 97th percentile. O’Neill ranked seventh among 266 players that had a minimum 100 running opportunities in 2022.
Over his first five seasons (2018-2022) O’Neill had a sprint speed that ranged from the 99th percentile to the 97th percentile.
O’Neill also missed 44 days in 2022 because of two separate hamstring injuries. The second rendered him inactive for the first playoff round.
Earlier in his career O’Neill missed a total of 35 days on the IL with three different groin injuries.
O’Neill is a very fast car … but a very fast car that breaks down too many times.
O’Neill invested a lot of offseason time in a training regimen devised to improve his flexibility. He wants to play in a helluva lot more games than the 96 he logged in 2022. This dude has been criticized, ridiculed and mocked for his injury downfalls and was determined to change it.
A few weeks ago in spring training, Marmol praised O’Neill for his intense offseason commitment.
“When we talk about adding a big bat, part of that is O’Neill being a big bat and going pole-to-pole, being able to actually answer the bell every day,” Marmol told reporters in Jupiter. “And he’s positioned himself to be able to do that.
“This was an offseason where that was the most important thing for him, making sure that his lower half could play every day. He feels good about where he’s at. Our performance department feels really good about the offseason. I would say it was probably the first offseason where everybody felt really good that we were on the same page as far as what his workload and overall program needed to look like.”
Great news, right? O’Neill was happy. The manager was happy. The front office was happy. O’Neill earned everyone’s respect for taking steps to avoid the usual injuries.
Then came Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, when O’Neill attempted to score from second on a single by Brendan Donovan. O’Neill was thrown out at home plate by Atlanta right fielder Ronald Acuna, who had the strongest throwing arm in the majors last season according to Statcast.
O’Neill seemed a little tentative. He made an awkward turn at third base that slowed him down. It wasn’t good baserunning.
And it didn’t matter. O’Neill had no chance of scoring unless Acuna made a wild and inaccurate throw. Acuna was on target, and O’Neill made the third out of the 7th inning, with his team down by three runs.
O’Neill’s cumbersome baserunning wasn’t the worst part of this episode. Cardinals third base coach Pop Warner made a bewilderingly poor decision to send O’Neill. It made absolutely no sense, and the Acuna’s throw-out was predictable.
Marmol blew a gasket after the game, ripping O’Neill privately, then walking into the postgame media conference to publicly denounce O’Neill’s “unacceptable” effort again. The next morning, in a pregame media session, Marmol criticized O’Neill again and benched him for the final game of the series.
This is confusing. A few weeks ago Marmol was gushing with praise over O’Neill’s goal of “going pole-to-pole, being able to actually answer the bell every day.”
O’Neill mentioned that after Tuesday’s mishap, saying “I’ve been working a lot on different run form mechanics and stuff here in St. Louis. That puts me in a better position for longevity.”
That’s the problem.
O’Neill is trying to sort this out.
How does O’Neill establish longevity without creating the perception that he isn’t playing hard?
I suppose it hasn’t occurred to Marmol that part of the solution is O’Neill reducing the miles-per-hour to lower the risk of injury.
There’s a fine line here, but O’Neill can still run fast without popping another hamstring. O’Neill’s history tells us his top-speed sprinting leads to blow-outs. Hamstring. Groin.
As O’Neill noted Tuesday night, he’s trying find the happy medium. That doesn’t mean he’s disrespecting the Cardinals with non-hustle and a lack of effort. But Marmol definitely criticized O’Neill along those lines, and it’s the worst and most insulting thing a manager can say about a player.
O’Neill put together his best season (2021), playing a career-high 138 games. He hit 34 homers, performed 48 percent above league average offensively, won a gold glove for the second consecutive season, and finished eighth in the National League MVP voting.
I’ve written this before: the more O’Neill plays, the better he is. (I backed that up with stats.) So what could O’Neill do if he can play 140 games or more in 2023?
O’Neill is trying to increase the probability of a healthier season. And yes, he’s slowed down some. By choice. The priority is to be there for his team, and put up huge power numbers again. This is a bit of a trade-off, and it isn’t wrong to do that. This is nothing new.
Through six games – small sample – O’Neill’s sprint speed is 27.8 feet per second. That’s down from last year’s 29.8 feet per second.
Let’s understand something here: that’s still fast. O’Neill is in the 81st percentile for sprint speed this season. And while the ranking is lower than it’s been in the past, O’Neill is still running faster than all but 19 percent of MLB players so far in 2023. And I think he’ll go faster once he eases his anxiety over injuries and recalibrates his speed accordingly.
Marmol overreacted. This isn’t an ideal situation, but O’Neill is trying to find the right balance and it may take a while. This may irritate Marmol, but for goodness sake, the Cardinals have played six games, and Marmol unloaded O’Neill in the fifth game. Too soon. Too much.
I don’t understand the manager’s choice to embarrass an injury-prone player during the first week of the season when the team, the player and the fans want the same result: O’Neill fulfilling his role as a feared lineup presence all season.
I don’t see the point of O’Neill pushing to the extreme, only to get taken down early on by another debilitating lower-half injury.
The best thing O’Neill can do is hit, and hit, and hit – and change the subject.
If O’Neill can get back on his 2021 track and put up massive numbers, I don’t think we’ll be checking his sprint speed on a daily basis. If O’Neill is clubbing balls over the wall or into the gaps, I don’t think the manager will be publicly scapegoating him if the third base coach screws up again.
Jim Edmonds didn’t go all-out all of the time, but that helped keep him relatively fresh. The Cardinals had a high level of tolerance because they needed Jimmy’s bat and center-field defense.
The younger Albert Pujols had bad wheels. He had lower-half issues, especially with his legs. But it was essential to have his remarkable offense in the lineup. Manager Tony La Russa advised Pujols to be smart. Protect the legs. Pujols saw it the same way. He didn’t run hard to first when hitting a routine ground ball, easy fly ball, or an ordinary pop-up.
Fans criticized Pujols for running slowly to first on routine ground balls. Pujols would turn on the speed based on the game situation. That was the intelligent way to go about it, and Pujols never played fewer than 143 games in a season during his first 11 years with St. Louis,
O’Neill isn’t Pujols.
My point of reference is to discuss how injury-vulnerable players try to get through a season without experiencing multiple crashes and IL stays.
After retraining his body, O’Neill is trying to retrain his mind. When does he push? When is it OK to downshift? This new understanding will take some time, but O’Neill has to make the adjustment, and that’s up to him.
That said, it isn’t a good look for O’Neill to pull up on a bloop in center field – as he did during the Toronto series. And we still don’t know if O’Neill can be an effective center fielder. Or if it made sense to take a two-time gold glove winner away from left field.
Even though I’m mostly defending O’Neill here, I must note that he’s already a minus four in net baserunning gain this season per Bill James Online. He was a plus five last season. That catches my attention.
I understand what O’Neill is trying to do, but these moments of self-preservation can only go so far. This is a legitimate area of scrutiny for Marmol to pursue with O’Neill, but it must be handled the right way. Marmol failed to do that.
O’Neill is in a tough spot. If he doesn’t go all-out at maximum speed, he’ll be accused of being lazy. If he does go all-out to maximum speed in all situations – and strains a hamstring for more IL time – he’ll be called out for being soft, unreliable and a hopeless case.
Power up, Tyler O’Neill.
Hit those home-run shots, and we’ll enjoy seeing you run around the bases. And we won’t care about how long it takes you to reach home plate.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Statcast, Baseball Reference and Bill James Online.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.