June 6, 2013
The Plate Discipline-Only Prospect
You know that the strikeout has become a much more common occurrence in the majors. What you might not know is that the story is much the same in the Texas League, whose Double-A history dates back to the mid-1940s. The progression hasn’t been quite as steep or as steady, but the end result is the same: this season, Texas League pitchers are striking out 7.6 batters per nine innings, just like the ones in the majors.
But there’s one Texas Leaguer whose strikeout rate refuses to rise. He’s an outfielder for the Springfield Cardinals, and his name is Mike O’Neill.
“I hate striking out,” O’Neill says. “That’s my biggest pet peeve in baseball.”
A few months ago, the Times’ Tyler Kepner interviewed Jeff Keppinger, the big leagues’ reigning king of contact. When he was a kid, Keppinger told Kepner, he would cry when he struck out, convinced that he’d done something “horrible.” O’Neill takes strikeouts almost as hard, explaining, “If I go 3-for-4, and I have a strikeout, that kind of ruins my day.”
Keppinger couldn’t shake the feeling that “everyone was laughing” at him in the stands. But O’Neill doesn’t worry about what anyone else thinks. He hates strikeouts because of how they make him feel.
“If I strike out, that means the pitcher beat me in a personal battle,” O’Neill explains. “I don’t like to lose at all. I’m a competitor out there, and I go at-bat to at-bat. If I put the ball in play and I get out, so be it, that’s the game of baseball. But if he strikes me out, he won that, and I just do not accept defeat.”
He hasn’t had to accept it often. O’Neill has struck out only 13 times in 229 plate appearances (5.7 percent), less often than any qualified big-league batter this season save for Norichika Aoki. And that’s nothing new. Between High-A and Double-A last season, he struck out even less often: 26 times in 520 plate appearances (5.0 percent). O’Neill has walked three times for every whiff in 2013, which no other minor leaguer (min. 100 PA) can claim. Only two other minor leaguers at any level—Brent Keys of the Florida State League’s Jupiter Hammerheads and Will Rhymes, a 30-year-old former Tiger and Ray in the International League—have even topped a two-to-one ratio.
But O’Neill can hit his way on, too. After a 3-for-5 performance on Wednesday, he’s batting .330 with a .443 on-base percentage in his first full Double-A season. The lefty ranks second in the Texas league to A’s first baseman Anthony Aliotti in both of those categories.
So far, I could be describing a future star. But O’Neill’s name appeared nowhere on our Cardinals Top 10 list, and he ranked only 28th on Baseball America’s St. Louis top 30, so you know a catch is coming. Actually, in O’Neill’s case, there are quite a few catches.
First, there’s his age: O’Neill turned 25 in February, so he’s old for his league. Second, there’s his almost complete lack of power: he’s hit only one home run this season, and he’s slugging only .399 despite his high average. Third, there’s his size—O’Neill is listed at 5’9”, 170, but we know that listed weights have a way of adding a few inches or pounds where they’re needed most. Fourth, there’s his shortage of traditional tools. And fifth, there’s the fact that he plays left field, typically a power position.
The lack of power is a problem, and the primary reason why he runs the risk of being labeled a tweener. Here’s O’Neill’s lone home run of the season (and second as a pro), a 2-2, sixth-inning, three-run shot off Padres pitcher Edwin Carl on May 10th:
The shot barely cleared the fence. O’Neill isn’t weak, but he doesn’t swing from his heels and generate a massive amount of torque to compensate for his size, like Dustin Pedroia does. He takes a tiny stride and features a compact stroke, quick to the ball but without much force behind it. The Cardinals envision him, he says, as “a leadoff type of hitter, and the guy that gets on base at a really good rate.” His strength is “seeing pitches and using the whole field, drawing walks and getting hits a well.”
So let’s see what that looks like. Earlier in the same game, O’Neill singled:
That’s more like it. O’Neill often slaps or lines the ball to left field; 56 of his 62 hits are singles. (Some left fielders play him way in to take away some of the hits he drops in over the shortstop’s head; so far, O’Neill hasn’t adopted a different approach depending on the defensive alignment he’s facing.) When he’s not going the other way, he’s working his way on via the walk. Here’s O’Neill leading off that May 10th game by taking two pitches:
The second one was ruled a strike, but O’Neill didn’t like the call, so he turned around so the ump could clarify where it was:
Armed with that information, he then proceeded to take the next four pitches before taking his base:
Six pitches, zero swings, one walk. It doesn’t hurt that O’Neill’s strike zone is small to begin with, and smaller still after he sinks into his stance.
O’Neill does swing sometimes, but he picks his pitches. “He very rarely chases,” says an AL scout who’s covered him since 2010, when he was drafted by St. Louis in the 31st round out of USC. “The contact is really more because of the plate discipline in general and the exceptional hand-eye.”
But O’Neill’s run tool, according to the same scout, is “mostly below average…maybe average down the line, but really it’s pretty fringy.” As a result, he doesn’t steal bases—in 263 games, he’s swiped only 32 bags, getting caught 14 times. And that lack of speed hurts him on both sides of the ball, since he can’t cover enough ground to play center. In left, he has “very good instincts, has good reads, and takes good routes,” which makes him “serviceable.” But he’s barred from right field by what the scout calls “one of the worst arms I’ve seen in Minor League Baseball.”
Still there’s that preternatural approach at the plate. “I’m selective and aggressive at the same time,” O’Neill says. “I’m looking for one pitch in one zone, and I’m taking until I get that pitch.” He gives me a hypothetical. “Say I’m looking away in that specific at-bat and he throws inside, I’m not going to swing at it because I can’t cover the whole plate at once. If I can zone in on that one pitch in that one zone I can pinpoint it, and as soon as I get it I can recognize it early and put the ball in play.”
Plenty of players espouse similar sentiments, but few put their plans into practice as effectively as O’Neill, who credits his karate training for improving his mental focus. (He holds a first-degree black belt.) Whatever the source of his success, O’Neill’s performance prompted the scout to call his consistency of approach and quality of at-bats the best in the minors.
One pro scouting executive I spoke to makes O’Neill sound like a superhero. “I’ve heard his plate discipline is so good that he can actually see through time at the plate,” he says.
That’s not that far from the truth. O’Neill can’t see through time, but he seems to need less of it than everyone else. “He recognizes pitches very early out of pitchers’ hands,” says the scout. “When I see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand I’m pretty good at recognizing whether it’s going to be a ball or strike and whether it’s going to be a fastball, changeup, or curveball right away,” O’Neill confirms. “That’s the reason why I have a pretty good contact rate, and that’s probably my biggest tool.”
There isn’t much statistical precedent for a player of O’Neill’s offensive profile; the scout couldn’t come up with a comp for him, noting that “anyone you would comp his approach to is a monster at the big league level.” There’s even less precedent for a player of O’Neill’s offensive profile succeeding. Our minor league database goes back to the late 1970s. Here’s a list of everyone since then who A) made at least 1000 plate appearances at Double-A or below; B) walked at least twice as often as he struck out, and C) had an Isolated Power as low or lower than O’Neill’s career .085. (Dave Magadan came very close to qualifying.)
Of those 13 players, five (Bryan Little, Oscar Robles, Jody Reed, Brian Raabe, Mark Carreon) made the majors. Only Reed and Carreon stuck around for any significant length of time. Reed was a shortstop/second baseman, and Carreon developed power later, since he was a high school draftee who was much younger than O’Neill at the lower levels. Of course, O’Neill has hit for a higher average and a higher OBP than anyone else on the list, though this isn’t adjusted for park or era. (Springfield favors hitters, and O’Neill has hit much better there than he has on the road.)
Usually, the outlook for a player whose game hinges heavily on plate discipline without any accompanying power is pretty bleak. (The list of recent players who've maintained high OBPs with low ISOs is a short one, without many left fielders). The expectation is that as the player approaches or makes the majors, pitchers won’t respect his power enough to pitch him carefully, and the walks will dry up. According to the scout, O’Neill can’t do much with hard inside stuff except foul it off, and he’s susceptible to pitchers who keep the ball down, since he doesn’t have the speed to beat out many base hits when he pounds the ball into the ground.
But O’Neill, with his customary confidence, isn’t worried that his game will stop working. “I actually think I’ll be more successful at the higher levels because the strike zone is smaller with the umpires,” he says. “The pitchers nibble at the plate.” But will they nibble when they have little to fear from throwing inside? “Even major leaguers miss their spots,” he points out. He also observes that his walk-to-strikeout ratio has held steady or risen with each promotion, and that he held his own in the Arizona Fall League last year, where he hit .368/.463/.397. He’s right. And with only 33-year-old Justin Christian and 27-year-old Jamie Romak ahead of him in left field for Memphis, he might get a chance to try his luck in Triple-A as soon as this season.
So will O’Neill add his name to the list of five disciplined big leaguers above? “In any other org, probably not,” says the exec. “The way the Cardinals do it…I have to give him a chance.”
The scout concurs. “If he had any tools at all, he would be probably in the big leagues right now hitting .300 somewhere,” he says. But as it is, “I would not be surprised at all if he shows up and has a little bit of success off the bench. I just don’t know if his profile is really there to stick very long.” Since O’Neill is stretched in center, lacks the arm for right, can’t hit homers, and doesn’t possess the speed for pinch running, he doesn’t offer the kind of versatility a team typically looks for in a fourth outfielder. But the scout also cited the Cardinals’ loyalty to their players, and team's developmental track record, as factors in his favor.
“The Cardinals have been promoting from within for some time now,” says O’Neill. “They give their prospects a good chance at the major league level. They stick to playing the game right as well. I do the little things well, and they encourage that.”
“The way he goes about the game, you can just tell that every single ounce of his tools are all out there on the field,” the scout adds. “He has the instincts, just the feel for the game…it’s just kind of refreshing to see a guy with an advanced mind on the field.” Between O’Neill’s stature, his history as an underdog, his earnest way of addressing reporters, and his professed affection for Darin Erstad, his arrival in the majors would make for a perfect storm of scrappiness—David Eckstein all over again. Eckstein, of course, was a pretty good player, while it remains to be seen whether O’Neill can fashion any kind of career. But even if he doesn’t, he’s already given us plenty to talk about.
Thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance and Chris Mosch for transcription help.