On an extremely superficial level, Tyler O’Neill looks like any other high-level prospect bouncing between the minors and the majors. After posting a 107 wRC+ in his first shot at Triple-A in 2017, he’s been excellent there over the past two years, putting up a combined 143 wRC+ in 427 PA. He’s been above-average in parts of two seasons in the majors — a 121 wRC+ over 232 PA. If the Cardinals didn’t have such an outfield logjam, he might have earned more major league playing time; indeed, the team traded Tommy Pham last summer in an attempt to find more plate appearances for O’Neill and Harrison Bader.
Look even slightly closer, though, and the narrative of O’Neill as average baseball player falls apart. Here is O’Neill, after his teammates tore off his jersey and undershirt following a walk-off home run. Even through the water droplets on the camera lens, his bulk is obvious:
How average can someone with biceps the size of most human beings’ legs be?
O’Neill’s prodigious muscles might set him apart visually, but his stat line is even more extreme. You see, saying that he’s slightly better than the average major league hitter is true, but it misses the point. Tyler O’Neill is much, much stronger than the average major league hitter. Honestly, that sentence probably needs at least two more “much”-es. O’Neill has a career major league HR/FB rate of 25.5%. That’s comical, eye-popping power, and it ties out with his minor league numbers. O’Neill turned 32.1% of his fly balls into home runs in Memphis in 2018, in one of the toughest hitters’ parks in the PCL and before the introduction of the major league baseball. He’s hit them out at a 28% clip in his Triple-A appearances this year.
Home runs aren’t where the story ends, either. Take a look at the best hard-hit rates in the big leagues over the past two years:
Now, did I carefully set a plate appearance minimum? You bet I did! Also, Alex Avila, huh? Still, this is an exclusive list, and O’Neill is right up there at the top. It’s not just hard hit rate, either. O’Neill’s power checks out on Statcast metrics. He’s barreled up more than 17.6% of his balls in play in his two years in the majors, fourth in all of baseball. When he hits a fly ball or line drive, his average exit velocity is 97.0 mph, a top-15 rate over the last two years. Those biceps aren’t just for show: Tyler O’Neill has otherworldly power.
It’s not all roses, however. O’Neill’s power numbers are stellar, but thus far in his major league career, his plate discipline has been an outlier in the opposite direction. Here’s another list, this one of strikeout rates over the past two years:
You see, O’Neill’s great power comes with great, er, strikeouts. Huge, heaping piles of strikeouts. The last player to strike out at anything approaching O’Neill’s current pace while being a productive major leaguer was Joey Gallo, and he provides an instructive case. In 2015, Gallo struck out 46% of the time and walked 12% of the time, roughly equivalent to O’Neill’s K-BB in the majors. He hit for a ton of power — we’re talking about Joey Gallo, after all — but even his 31.6% HR/FB and .356 BABIP could only prop his line up to an 87 wRC+.
How do you strike out 40% of the time? You need to swing and miss at your fair share of baseballs, and O’Neill certainly does that. He has the second-highest swinging strike rate in the majors since his call-up, 22.3%, trailing only Jorge Alfaro. It’s not a matter of poor strike zone judgment — O’Neill swings at an above-average 37% of pitches outside the zone, but he also swings at an equally-above-average 75% of pitches in the zone, and neither of those two rates is particularly far from average. Rather, he just misses a lot — his 58.1% contact rate is the lowest in baseball over the past two years.
The low contact rate is another place where he resembles Gallo, who still sports the third-lowest contact rate despite making significant contact strides during his major league career. Both of these players are making a tradeoff; they might miss a lot, but they hit the stuffing out of the ball when they connect. That’s mostly unavoidable; if you’re going to hit this ball for an easy opposite-field home run:
Then you have to be okay taking this swing against Wander Suero too:
There’s reason to believe that O’Neill’s strikeout rate will improve. His contact rate in the minors over the past two years has been a better, albeit still alarming, 67.4%. Gallo, for comparison, didn’t break 60% in his last two years in the minors. O’Neill’s minor league strikeout rate is a good sign, too: a career 27.9% rate to match 9.1% walks. Those numbers with O’Neill’s power would be a fearsome major league hitter. Still, in the here and now, a 40% strikeout rate is certainly not what you like to see.
Back to Gallo’s 2015 for a minute — if you’re wondering how O’Neill is significantly out-hitting a comparable-plate-discipline hitter who posted a .356 BABIP, well, his major league BABIP is the numerical equivalent of an interrobang, a gobsmacking .414. That rate isn’t sustainable, and it’s not even really worth discussing. That’s not to say he isn’t hitting the ball hard — his .357 xBABIP, per Statcast, is 17th in the majors over the last two years among players with 100 balls in play. And that’s not to say he isn’t fast, either — O’Neill’s maximum sprint speed of 29.5 ft/sec is 15th-best in baseball this year. It’s just a matter of gravity and time — no one can run a .400 BABIP for long.
In truth, nearly everything about Tyler O’Neill is extreme. He hits the ball extremely hard, hits for extreme power, strikes out extremely often, walks extremely rarely, makes contact at an extremely low rate, runs extremely fast, and has an extremely high BABIP (no, I don’t own a thesaurus — why do you ask?). There’s really no other player in baseball who is as weird on as many axes as O’Neill.
That’s no mere hyperbole, either. To prove it, I created a toy stat called EKSTRM+, for Exit velocity, K’s, Swing and miss, Taking a walk, Running, and Magically high BABIP. What this garbage statistic does is convert hard-hit rate, ISO, strikeout rate, contact rate, walk rate, sprint speed, and BABIP into z-scores. Then, we simply take the sum of the absolute values of the z-scores. The higher the number, the farther from “normal” the player’s line is. Now, how did O’Neill do in this made-up stat?
|Player||Hard% Z||ISO Z||K% Z||Contact% Z||BB% Z||Speed Z||BABIP Z||Total|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||0.24||2.02||1.03||-1.41||0.10||1.55||4.12||10.48|
Yeah well, I did make up the statistic to make him look good. Still, though, he’s more than three z-scores clear of the pack. Is it wrong to use both contact and strikeout rates? Should we maybe disregard ISO here? Maybe! It’s a pretty bad statistic! The point, though, is that O’Neill is anything but average.
Tyler O’Neill is wild. Wild. What’s wildest about O’Neill, though, is that these extremes add up to essentially a normal player. Every single one of these metrics for O’Neill is at least a standard deviation away from normal. In no way whatsoever does he resemble an average major leaguer. Despite all that, though, his wRC+ is right in the middle of the pack. He’s a good hitter, but not a great one. He has almost the same wRC+ as Michael Conforto over the last two years. The only difference is, Conforto is less than a single z-score away from average in all but one of these statistics.
The central, and correct, tenet of wOBA and wRC+ is that different types of offensive production can be quantified and compared. A 121 wRC+ is a 121 wRC+ is a 121 wRC+. It takes away something magical, though, something both descriptive and fun, when you see Conforto, a good offensive outfielder who does basically everything a little better than average, and O’Neill, who is either the best or the worst at most everything, as both “just” better than average.
On one hand, Tyler O’Neill is a great example of why we need a statistic like wRC+ or OPS+. How else can you make sense of someone who strikes out 40% of the time but hits a million dingers and makes outs on balls in play less than almost everyone else? On the other hand, he’s also a great example of why wRC+ isn’t sufficient to describe baseball. Maybe to a front office, offensive production is offensive production, but I enjoy weirdness, and for that reason I’m grateful that Tyler O’Neill exists.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.