The St. Louis Cardinals are having a ton of issues in the middle of the lineup this season. Primarily, they lack the ability to get runs across the plate. They have no problems getting on base, but have zero ability to get those runners in. Tyler O’Neill is at the root of some of these issues.
They currently rank third in MLB in on-base percentage at .340, only trailing the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. Beyond OBP, it gets pretty ugly. They rank dead last in the majors with only 89 RBI, trailing the Padres by nearly 100. With such a high OBP, one might expect the Cardinals to be near the top of the league in OPS, but that isn’t the case due to the lack of pop in the lineup. They’re only slugging .374, so their OPS is only .714, putting them at 23rd in the league. 3rd in their own division, trailing the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.
When the front office in St. Louis let Marcell Ozuna walk in free agency, they did so with the expectation that one of their young outfielders would step right in his place. The often used, and quite stale statement that John Mozeliak is known for repeating, “internal options,” was said a few times. Well, here we are near the trade deadline, in an albeit, shortened season, and we still find ourselves waiting for those internal options to work out.
Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler were never going to be the answer when it comes to run production. That isn’t why either player is on the team. Lane Thomas had a solid run with the big club in 2019, but it was a small sample size, and he has missed much of the season with a Covid-19 diagnosis. Dylan Carlson is the man that everyone wanted to save the franchise, but he has been the victim of bad luck, and an adjustment period since joining the team.
When it comes down to producing runs in the middle of the lineup, it seems that Mr. Mozeliak and Mike Shildt expected Tyler O’Neill to step up and fill Ozuna’s shoes. In 2018, the muscle bound canadian outfielder only had 142 plate appearances and finished the season with 9 home runs, 23 RBI, had an OPS of .815, an OPS+ of 115, and produced 1.2 WAR in 61 games.
Not to mention he finished in the 97th and 99th percentile in sprint speed via statcast for 2018 and 2019, as you can see in the statcast graphic above. That’s not at all a bad start to his young career, and it seemed O’Neill might just be a future all star. Especially when factoring in his arm and ability to get to so many balls in the outfield.
A Rapid Decline
The issue has been that since his 2018 debut when he tore it up, almost all of his stats have declined. Whether it be his counting stats, metrics, or statcast numbers, as you can see above, nearly all have gotten worse since his rookie season. So, what happened? What will it take to get him back on track?
From an outsider’s perspective, it almost looks as if Jeff Albert, the Cardinals hitting coach, has attempted to turn Tyler O’Neill into a contact hitter. Yes, the dude that can bench press a bus, a simple contact hitter. Whether it was Albert, another coach, or a personal choice, O’Neill seems to have made a conscious effort to change his plate approach. He’s improved his plate discipline. He’s seeing more pitches, and striking out less, while walking more. The problem is, his numbers are still in rapid decline.
For O’Neill to be successful, he has to hit for more power, and his numbers tell that very story. He finished 2018 with a 116 wRC+, in 2019 it dropped to 91, and now in 2020 it sits at an abysmal 76. At the same time, his strikeout percentage dropped from .401, to .351, to where it is now, .230. Leaving the, “I hate strikeouts” fans speechless.
His walk rate has more than doubled since his rookie season which should be great for his OBP, right? Wrong. His OBP is down nearly 30 points from last season, and nearly 20 from his rookie season. His OPS over the last three seasons; .803/.723/.628. His slugging percentage over the last three season; .500/.411/.344. He produced 1.2 WAR in 2018, and has only produced 0.5 since.
Hitting Under the Influence
Perhaps some of Tyler’s issues can be attributed to watching guys like Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Paul Goldschmidt. The problem there is that the shift has hurt Matt Carpenter more than any other player in the league, so he likely does it out of necessity. Fowler and Goldy, especially Goldy, get on base at an astonishing rate. They don’t need another walk behind them, they need to be driven in.
So, what exactly are we getting at here? A deep rooted and fundamental issue within the St. Louis Cardinals franchise. This deep, dark desire to continue to pretend that it’s 1985, and play “Whitey Ball.” The Cardinals and their fans alike at times, seem to want to hold on to this fun time in baseball history.
The issue with that is baseball has moved on. Defensive shifts limit how far you can get with speed, bunt skills, and contact hitting. The demand for a hitter that can hit it over the shift for power is great because it has to be. A strikeout is just another out. Putting the ball in play can do great things, but putting it into the seats will always be better. Teams and players went that direction because it works.
The 2020 Cardinals are prime examples of why small ball isn’t the way to go this day and age. They’re fast and can get on base, but have no one to drive them in from scoring position. Paul Goldschmidt can’t bat 27 times a game, so the Cardinals need to find their power, and in a hurry.
Take the Power Back
If I’m in the dugout with O’Neill, I’m telling him to gain the ten pounds back and swing for the fences, kid. The Cardinals can handle the strikeouts, however, they can’t handle a complete lack of power hitting. If O’Neill or shortstop Paul DeJong aren’t able to find their power soon, the writing may be on the wall this season for the Redbirds.
With the trade deadline looming, it remains to be seen if John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch will make any moves. It seems that with the shortened season, that old “internal options” phrase just might get thrown at us again. If it does, it could be O’Neill’s time to shine with none of the other outfielders blowing us away right now. If he doesn’t want to squander it, he will find his power once again.