The Cardinals have invested years of time and patience in outfielder Tyler O’Neill after acquiring him from Seattle in July of 2017 for the young lefthanded starting pitcher Marco Gonzales.
O’Neill’s search for consistency has been disrupted by mighty winds generated by his swings and whiffs and strikeouts. But president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch have stood by their guy.
The muscle was always there. For O’Neill, now 26, the exasperating challenge was maximizing his strength by connecting with enough pitches to make them disappear into the ozone. Instead, he had the habit of disappearing into the dugout after striking out.
The 2021 season has reintroduced O’Neill as a more intelligent and confident and adaptable hitter. Strikeouts are still an issue, but he’s hitting the ball harder than ever, and stinging more of the strikes that pitchers throw his way. His swings are finding the sweet spot at an increased rate, and he’s punishing pitches at a career-best level. He is no longer a one-dimensional, pull-crazy hitter. He isn’t as easy to trick with slight-of-hand offspeed pitches. The curve balls and sliders that pitchers used to elude O’Neill’s free-swinging bat are being smacked and redirected for line drives and extra-base hits.
O’Neill has taken advantage of his first extensive showcase season. He’s been given the at-bats he’s always needed — even if he didn’t deserve them in the past.
This season he’s leading the Cardinals in slugging percentage (.529), OPS (.879) and adjusted OPS. He’s second on the team in batting average (.278), onbase percentage (.350) home runs (25) and is tied for second with 11 stolen bases. O’Neill has the best home-run ratio among lineup regulars, swatting a big fly every 15.8 at-bats. And he’s produced an extra-base hit every 8.2 at-bats.
“He’s really grown into the consistent player that he’s wanted to be and is capable of,” manager Mike Shildt said Thursday afternoon, following the Cardinals’ second straight win over the Dodgers.
Both victories were air-lifted home by O’Neill solo home runs that made the difference between winning and losing.
O’Neill is still in the process of making himself a more complete hitter, but he’s made dramatic and exciting progress in 2021. So don’t be blinded by the strikeouts. Clear your eyes to see the many reasons why the Cardinals wanted O’Neill — and have stayed with O’Neill — and are collecting on their investment.
O’Neill’s all-around performance in 2021 — defense, baserunning and hitting — make him one of the most valuable outfielders in the National League.
Going into the weekend series against the Reds at Busch Stadium, O’Neill ranks 5th among NL outfielders with 3.9 Wins Above Replacement. The only NL outfielders with more WAR are Bryce Harper (5.4), Juan Soto (4.9), Bryan Reynolds (4.5) and Nicholas Castellanos (4.2.)
In addition, O’Neill ranks 4th among NL outfielders in slugging, is tied for fourth in homers, and is 6th in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) at 37 percent above league average.
I’m sure O’Neill would be even higher on the outfield WAR if he’d avoided injuries. But because of a series of minor ailments, O’Neill ranks 24th among NL outfielders in games played, and 25th in plate appearances.
I don’t know if we fully appreciate the season that O’Neill is having. That’s why I’m writing this — to run his season through a proper inspection.
Let’s begin …
O’NEILL, BEFORE AND AFTER: Coming into 2021, O’Neill had amassed 450 big-league plate appearances spread over three seasons. His numbers were crummy, with the inconsistent flailing away through frustrating stretches of poor contact and tantalizing but insufficient power.
Then again, it can be especially difficult for a young hitter to establish consistency when he doesn’t receive a full opportunity of playing time; between 2018 and 2020 he averaged only 150 plate appearances per season.
The Cardinals’ front office was determined to give O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson a full run in the outfield this season.
And after having only 450 PA in his first three seasons O’Neill already has taken 433 PA in 2021. And this season O’Neill is validating the organization’s patience and confidence in him.
Here’s the before and after picture. The combined stats from his first three seasons are on the left, and the digits from the 2021 season is are to the right:
Batting average: .229 … .278
Onbase pct: .281 … .350
Slugging pct: .422 … .529
OPS: .713 … .879
Isolated Power: .193 … .251
Adjusted OPS: 91 … 141
Using the adjusted OPS as a barometer, O’Neill was nine percent below the league average offensively over his first three seasons — and is 41 percent above league average offensively in 2021. That’s a 50 percent improvement.
The Statcast data is revealing. This season his hard-hit rate 54.7% ranks among the top three percent in the majors. He’s also in the top three percent in barrel percentage, and average exit velocity. He’s in the top four percent in expected slugging percentage (based on quality of contact.)
BLAZING SPEED: And as you know, this dude is fast. This season he ranks among the top two percent of MLB players in sprint speed, and that’s helped propel him to 11 steals in 15 attempts (73%) and the third-best Bases Taken percentage (60%) among all MLB players. (Bases Taken entails the number of times a runner advances an extra base on a batted ball in play.)
GOLD GLOVE DEFENSE: O’Neill was chosen as the NL’s top defender in left field last and awarded with his first Gold Glove. And O’Neill is pursuing a second Gold Glove in 2021; he currently leads MLB left fielders with 10 Defensive Runs Saved.
WHAT ABOUT THE STRIKEOUTS: O’Neill had a 34 percent strikeout rate over this first three seasons and is still chasing too many pitches out of the zone — a factor in his 32% percent strikeout rate. If you want to fume over his strikeouts, make yourself happy. It doesn’t bother me, because the whiffs aren’t significantly problematic when a hitter is thriving in just about every other area. And one of the biggest changes in O’Neill’s profile in 2021 is his aggressiveness on pitches in the strike zone. He’s swinging at more strikes and making contact at a higher rate (76.6%) than his rate (72%) in his first three seasons. Bottom line: his strikeout rate may be higher than desired, but it’s declined slightly in 2021. And that K rate is more than offset by his multiple areas of growth.
TURNING WEAKNESS INTO STRENGTH: Here’s another indicator of O’Neill’s substantial advancement as a hitter this season. As he struggled from 2018 through 2020, O’Neill was mostly futile against curveballs, sliders, and changeups. But in 2021 he has a .592 slug against sliders, a .484 slug against changeups, and a .463 slug vs. curves.
HITTING TO ALL FIELDS: O’Neill has also diversified his approach by pulling pitches less frequently and hitting the ball all over the yard. In his first three seasons 56 percent of O’Neill’s overall hits were pulled. This season, only 37% of his hits have been pulled — and that includes eight of his 25 homers. O’Neill has posted his highest number of hits (47) and homers (13) on pitches he smashed to the center of the field. When he puts a line drive in play this season, O’Neill has rocketed the largest share (42%) to the middle area. And his batting average on middle line drives is .692. Overall this season O’Neill has a batting average of .513 on batted balls to middle/center.
MAKING ADJUSTMENTS: Before the season, I said that much of O’Neill’s success would be determined by how quickly he could pull out of slumps by making corrections and regrouping. I believe he’s done a good job with that. O’Neill has had only one subpar month, hitting 12 percent below league average in July in park-and-league adjusted runs created.
Two things about that: (1) O’Neill had only 79 plate appearances in July, a month interrupted by his few minor injuries and illnesses — plus the All-Star break. (2) And performing at 12% below average while playing in only 20 games in a short month isn’t an example of a hitter spiraling into a free fall. But it is true; Bro’Neill didn’t do much in July.
O’Neill, however, is making up for his July downturn. In 131 plate appearances since Aug. 1 he’s batting .315 with a 1.017 OPS and is 70 percent above league average offensively in park-and-league adjusted runs created. The damage includes 14 extra-base hits including eight homers. And his OBP is .412 in August-September, thanks to a walk rate that’s sprouted to 11.1% since the end of July.
O’Neill made the adjustments. He got back on track.
And the Cardinals have the outfielder they coveted.
The front office didn’t make the mistake of giving up on O’Neill, or dealing him away. It looks like Mozeliak and Girsch got this one right. That said, O’Neill will have to prove 2021 isn’t a fluke. As he goes forward he’ll have to continue to refine his swing and turn his breakout season into an impressive standard that holds up over time.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. 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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
The weekly “Seeing Red” podcast with Bernie and Will Leitch is available at 590thefan.com
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.