Cardinals: Tyler O’Neill Draws Walks

St. Louis Cardinals’ Tyler O’Neill rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run off Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Luis Garcia, right, during the sixth inning of a baseball game Saturday, May 19, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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I don’t like “straw man” arguments, so I try not to make them. If you don’t know, a straw man argument is basically where you take a stand against an opinion that doesn’t actually exist — or if it does it held by so few that it is irrelevant. A few St. Louis sports radio personalities fill hours of airtime with them, which is neither here nor there, but it’s part of why I try to avoiding falling in the trap. However, while the topic I’m writing about today isn’t necessarily a widely held opinion, the few people that are sharing it have enough influence to spread the misinformation to the masses. For that reason, I don’t think this is a “straw man” situation. I think it needs to be addressed.

That topic of course, is Tyler O’Neill’s ability to draw walks.

Folks are taking note of O’Neill’s 4 walks this spring, which is the genesis of these conversations. However, the framework is wrong. Over the course of this week, I’ve heard Dan McLaughin flat out say on the game broadcast — I don’t have the exact quote — that walks have never been a part of O’Neill’s game. I heard Anthony Stalter (Stalter & Rivers, 101ESPN) describe O’Neill as a big power, high-strikeout, low-walk hitter. On Twitter, Bren Frederickson (Post-Dispatch) pointed out the walks, implying that this is a new (and good) development in his game, with local radio personality Bob Ramsey replying and echoing that sentiment.

I understand why they are saying what they are saying, and I’m not being critical of their work…

But they are wrong.

First, why they are saying such things…

So, in fairness, Tyler has not done much walking in his brief major league career. In 2018, he walked just 4.9% of the time. In 2019, that increased to a still low 6.6%. That combines for a 5.8% walk-rate over his first 293 plate appearances.

So it’s fair to say that overall he has not walked in the big leagues. And that’s why I get where these gentlemen are coming from.

But here’s why they are wrong…

O’Neill has had healthy walk-rates throughout the upper levels of the minor leagues.

Beginning at AA in 2016, O’Neill’s walk rates are as follows:

2016 – 10.8% (Mariners – AA)
2017 – 11.1% (Mariners – AAA)
2017 – 6.2% (Cardinals – AAA)
2018 – 10.6% (Cardinals – AAA)
2019 – 8.4% (Cardinals – AAA)

He took a step back after being traded to the Cardinals in 2017, I chalk that up to being a 21-year old kid (young for AAA) trying to do to much to impress a new organization. The surrounding numbers show that drawing walks has, in fact, been a part of his game for a few years now.

Here’s a reference point:

In 2016, O’Neill was playing at the AA level for the first time, at the age of 20.

In 2019, Dylan Carlson was playing at the AA level for the first time, at the age of 20.

They both posted a 10.8% walk-rate.

Now, player comparison’s are unfair and these are two very different hitters. However, it puts it in perspective that at the same age and level, O’Neill was able to draw walks at the same rate that the Cardinals top prospect, Texas League Player of the Year, Dylan Carlson did.

In reference to the guy he is replacing, Marcell Ozuna, O’Neill has a much more prolific history of drawing walks. Excluding his 9.4% walk rate in 2017, Ozuna never walked more than 7.1% of the time in any other season with the Marlins. His highest walk-rate with a full-season minor league affiliate was 8.3%. In 2018, with the Cardinals, he walked just 6.1%. It wasn’t until 2019 that he posted a good walk-rate at 11.3%, but it came at the cost of 30 points of batting average, compared to his career mark, so it made little difference overall.

O’Neill can meet, and likely exceed, Ozuna’s overall patience at the plate. Nothing in O’Neill’s track record, other than being unproven at the major league level, indicates that he isn’t the better overall player compared to Ozuna. But that’s beside the point.

Tyler O’Neill walks.

This isn’t ground breaking analysis. I just went to Fangraphs and got myself educated before drawing conclusions and making statements.

Now, he hasn’t done it much in the majors, but he hasn’t had much chance to settle in.

Even at that, his improvement from 4.9% to 6.6% year-over-year was good to see, much like Paul DeJong has gradually improved in this department every year.

But my main point is, unlike DeJong, O’Neill doesn’t have to learn how to walk.

He already has the ability, he’s shown it before.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Thanks for reading.

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