Tyler O’Neill, Two-True-Outcome King

Cardinals, Daily Graphings

Tyler O’Neill, Two-True-Outcome King

Tyler O’Neill’s batting line doesn’t make any sense. I don’t mean that in a good or bad way, though I’m sure a line like his will elicit bad feelings in plenty of people. That line, just for the record, is .278/.309/.611, with a 2.6% walk rate and 34.2% strikeout rate. As you might surmise from the silly slugging percentage, he’s clubbed 13 home runs already this season, which would put him on pace for 52 in 600 plate appearances. True outcomes? Tyler O’Neill is a champion of truth.

Strikeouts and home runs have always gone together. Babe Ruth is the all-time true-outcome leader when compared to his era. But O’Neill kicks it into overdrive. Most sluggers use their prodigious power to get on base; they draw walks because pitchers are afraid to face them in the strike zone. O’Neill, again, is walking 2.6% of the time. That would be the worst rate in baseball if he qualified for the batting title, tied with Salvador Perez.

Nothing I’m saying here is particularly new. O’Neill’s 34.2% strikeout rate is virtually identical to his career mark. His 37.1% home run per fly ball rate will surely come down, but his career mark is 23.3%. His maximum exit velocity on the year is exactly identical to his previous career mark. Why write about him now?

Partially, it’s because Tyler O’Neill is a delight. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have the strongest man you’ve ever seen connect with a fastball? Wonder no longer. Have you ever wondered just how much someone could strike out while delivering value? O’Neill is playing at a 6 WAR pace. His wRC+ stands at 149. Exactly five hitters have struck out more frequently than he has over 150 or more plate appearances, and the best wRC+ of that bunch is 104. He’s a science project come to life.

I’ve covered this angle before, with a gimmicky statistic called EKSTRM+. It’s because O’Neill is extreme, you see, and because spelling is more of a suggestion than a rule. While we’re here, we might as well recapitulate that statistic, because it’s a blast.

EKSTRM+ stands for Exit velocity, K’s, Swing and miss, Taking a walk, Running, and Magically high BABIP. It is, quite literally, a stat designed for O’Neill. It covers hard hit rate, ISO, strikeout rate, contact rate, walk rate, sprint speed, and BABIP. You simply take the z-score of each statistic, add the absolute values, and gaze lovingly at some of the most entertaining players in the game:

EKSTRM-ly Exciting Players
Player BB% Z K% Z ISO Z BABIP Z Contact% Z Hard% Z Sprint Z Total
Yasmani Grandal 5.29 0.59 1.39 -3.73 -0.60 1.90 -3.02 16.53
Kevin Newman -1.35 -2.50 -1.94 -1.72 2.01 -2.26 0.87 12.64
Tyler O’Neill -1.85 1.92 2.53 0.89 -1.85 0.89 2.11 12.05
David Fletcher -1.38 -1.70 -2.08 0.02 2.39 -3.23 0.40 11.20
Miguel Sanó 0.82 2.68 1.18 -2.55 -2.29 0.87 -0.38 10.78
Fernando Tatis Jr. 0.96 0.45 3.43 -0.12 -1.17 2.86 1.49 10.47
Nick Madrigal -1.24 -2.27 -0.86 0.59 2.45 -2.07 0.79 10.28
Michael A. Taylor -0.91 1.95 -0.70 1.57 -2.39 -0.81 1.02 9.36
Martín Maldonado -0.05 1.34 -0.91 -1.80 -0.82 -1.29 -2.78 9.00
Nicky Lopez 0.82 -1.37 -1.42 -0.77 2.09 -1.59 0.87 8.92

Okay, fine, gaze lovingly at some of the most entertaining players in the game and Kevin Newman. Still, it’s a fun list, and worthy of an article on its own. Being far from average is fun, regardless of how you get there. O’Neill and Fletcher are both great. Tatis and Madrigal are both great. They’re absolutely nothing alike.

I’m after more than fun; the 13 homers and biceps the size of my head could have told you that he’d be fun. I want to know if O’Neill’s production looks sustainable. His game is prone to swings of performance — deriving your value from rare events will do that. Does anything about this season portend a breakout?

Let’s establish one thing first: O’Neill doesn’t need to get on base at a high clip to produce a good batting line. His power on contact is as real as it gets. I use barrel rate quite a bit as a shorthand for premium contact, and O’Neill has it in spades. He’s produced 20 barrels already this year, or 21.5% of his batted balls.

That simple descriptor undersells his power. No matter how you look at it, he’s outright crushing the ball. Among players with 10 or more barrels this year, O’Neill hits his the 14th-hardest (out of 151). He has the 12th-highest xwOBA on those barrels. Sixteen — 16!! — of those 20 have been “blasts,” a harder subset of barrels you can think of as ultra-barrels. It’s too early to say what this year’s ball will mean for those, but last year, 89% of blasts turned into homers.

Another barrel fact: 17 of O’Neill’s 20 barrels have come on pitches over the heart of the plate. That sounds like a huge number, and it’s definitely higher than league average, which stands at 71% this year. I’m not really sure that this average means anything, though. What do barrels outside the heart of the plate have to do with barrels over the heart? Wouldn’t more powerful players have wider-ranging power? Is it even good to get to more of your barrels by crushing meatballs, not that every pitch over the heart of the plate is a meatball by any means?

What I’m actually interested in is barrels as a percentage of swings at good pitches. Those aforementioned 17 barrels have come on 130 swings. That works out to 13.1% of the time, and holy moly is that a good number. It’s the best in baseball, full stop. The list is a nice one, too:

Barrels per Swing, Heart of the Plate
Player Barrels Swings Barrel%
Tyler O’Neill 17 130 13.1%
Max Muncy 20 160 12.5%
Fernando Tatis Jr. 15 131 11.5%
Giancarlo Stanton 15 131 11.5%
Bo Bichette 20 181 11.0%
Hunter Renfroe 13 126 10.3%
Mike Trout 11 107 10.3%
Brandon Crawford 16 160 10.0%
Evan Longoria 14 140 10.0%
Randal Grichuk 17 170 10.0%

You don’t have to be on this list to be a great hitter. Heck, just being on this list doesn’t mean you’re a great hitter; there are a few head scratchers on there. But the key point seems pretty obvious: when these guys swing in their happy zones, the ball goes a long way. O’Neill is literally the best in baseball this year at that enviable skill.

A quick word of caution: this isn’t something that you can take as a hard fact without at least considering context. Adding swings in the heart of the plate might not be all that helpful if you aren’t adding good swings. Some of the batters getting the most per swing are judicious with their swings, hunting the pitches they can crush and feasting on those. Not every swing in a region is created equal, and adding a few extra won’t necessarily produce the same results as the ones that already exist.

Still, it can’t hurt to swing more where you do best. If we’re looking for a change in his game, the best thing I could imagine is O’Neill finding a way to get more swings in the heart region, whether by waiting pitchers out and forcing them to come to him or by aggressively going after anything that might fit the bill.

O’Neill has accomplished that trick in a neat way this year:

Tyler O’Neill, Swinging at Good Pitches
Year Heart% Heart Swing% As % of Swings As % of Pitches
2018 28% 78% 42.4% 22.1%
2019 22% 81% 33.4% 17.1%
2020 26% 74% 42.8% 19.5%
2021 30% 80% 44.8% 23.7%

Pitchers haven’t respected his power, a surprising fact given that one look at him could clue you into what can happen if you hang a meatball. With more pitches to hit, he’s feasting. More of his swings than ever before come on these high-value pitches, whether you’re considering a fraction of swings or of all pitches seen.

Of course, just because O’Neill frequently crushes them doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss his fair share. He misses more than his fair share, in fact:

Tyler O’Neill, Whiffing at Good Pitches
Player Heart SwStr% K%
Michael A. Taylor 25.7% 34.2%
Rafael Devers 24.7% 27.1%
Javier Báez 23.7% 36.7%
Brandon Belt 23.3% 33.6%
Kyle Lewis 23.3% 25.2%
Randy Arozarena 22.8% 28.6%
Bryce Harper 22.2% 27.5%
Joey Gallo 21.8% 32.8%
Bobby Dalbec 21.1% 36.7%
Tyler O’Neill 20.9% 34.2%

That’s just the cost of doing business if you’re Tyler O’Neill. He makes up for some of that with his aggression, though, because he rarely takes a called strike over the heart of the plate. In fact, he checks in 54th in the majors on that list, at 41.1%. That’s a great tradeoff with his barrels. Three strikes for every smashed fair ball is a swap that any hitter in baseball would make, and that’s roughly what happens when he encounters a good pitch to hit.

Does that aggression mean he’ll end up with a 34.2% strikeout rate and 2.6% walk rate forever? I don’t think so. Pitchers simply can’t keep challenging him. He’s aggressive when they try to, and he’s fourth in baseball on runs produced on those swings, behind only Vladimir Guerrero Jr., J.D. Martinez, and Jesse Winker, three of the hottest hitters in the game.

That challenge and his response to it explain his strikeout rate. Face a pitch right down the middle, and you’re either getting a strike or a leisurely stroll around the bases quite often. O’Neill’s 18.6% swinging strike rate sounds dire, and it is. It’s the fourth-worst mark in baseball. But what is he supposed to do — just take those pitches down the middle?

He doesn’t have a sterling batting eye, and that’s okay — not everyone does, after all. He does well enough — he swings less frequently than league average at pitches in the chase and waste zones, the ones that pitchers often use to bait whiff-happy sluggers.

That skill should help him walk more often than he actually has this year. After all, no one should want to tussle with him over the plate, and he isn’t flailing helplessly at bounced curveballs. Yet, again — 2.3% walk rate. What gives? What gives is that pitchers are attacking him in the strike zone so frequently that they simply aren’t giving him a chance to do anything but swing.

On the first pitch of an at-bat, O’Neill has always been aggressive. He swings at 55% of the strikes he sees, as compared to 42.3% for the league as a whole. Pitchers have responded by throwing him more in-zone pitches than average. Wait, what?

This trend holds for pretty much every count. Here are the zone and heart rates for every count, both for O’Neill and the league as a whole. I’ve highlighted every place where he sees fewer pitches in the zone than average:

Pitcher Aggression by Count
Count League Zone% O’Neill Zone% League Heart% O’Neill Heart%
0-0 52.0% 56.6% 28.4% 31.6%
0-1 45.5% 54.5% 23.6% 29.9%
0-2 33.8% 37.8% 16.3% 13.3%
1-0 54.0% 54.7% 29.6% 26.4%
1-1 49.4% 57.4% 26.3% 48.1%
1-2 38.9% 34.6% 19.5% 13.5%
2-0 57.0% 78.6% 32.1% 50.0%
2-1 56.2% 56.0% 32.1% 40.0%
2-2 47.1% 40.4% 25.2% 19.2%
3-0 60.0% 100.0% 34.9% 0.0%
3-1 60.1% 100.0% 34.7% 100.0%
3-2 57.3% 71.4% 32.2% 47.6%

Take some of the numbers with a slight grain of salt — O’Neill has only gotten to 3-0 once, for example — but the trend is clear. For whatever reason, pitchers can’t stop coming after him. They’re leaving the zone with reasonable frequency after reaching two strikes — a solid strategy given his propensity to chase — but for the most part, they’re piping it in and daring him to take his best hack.

O’Neill is up for that dare, obviously. His whole game is built off of finding pitches to crush, and pitchers keep obliging him with a steady stream. Why walk when you can slug freaking .600? Why hold back when the opposition is begging you not to? O’Neill’s walk and strikeout numbers will normalize when he stops eating at an all-you-can eat meatball buffet. When pitchers stop giving in, he won’t swing so much, and so he won’t miss so much — but he also won’t hit quite so many balls to adjacent zip codes.

I’m exaggerating. The contact quality won’t stay this high, and the walk rate won’t stay this low either. But if you’re wondering why O’Neill’s numbers are such a caricature, don’t put all the blame on him. He’s doing his part to force pitchers to put him on base. In time, they’ll adjust — or they won’t, and he’ll continue his high-whiff, high-power hijinks, one of the most entertaining players in the game in his natural element.

All statistics are current through games of June 7th.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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