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Do not freak out about Tyler O’Neill’s numbers at Tacoma

The 22-year-old hasn’t put up the numbers anyone expected at Triple-A, but there’s no cause for concern

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Fall Stars Game
I said don’t freak out
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler O’Neill hates sitting still. Long car rides, like the one his girlfriend Stephanie takes multiple times a month as she commutes between Vancouver BC and Tacoma, make him antsy. Why spend time sitting when you could spend time doing? He’d rather be in the cages or on the field or in the gym, or some combination of the above. Even after games, in his down time, he is still a bouncing ball of energy—what teammates have called “the Tyler Show.”

Last year, O’Neill used that energy to rip through the Southern League, claiming MVP honors and making a legitimate run at a Triple Crown. O’Neill, an invitee to the Mariners’ first annual Hitting Summit, came into 2016 with a new focus. He sacrificed a little bit of the power he’d shown in the California League (.297 ISO, .558 SLG) to become more selective at the plate, driving his strikeout rate down from 30.5% to 26.1%, and jacking up his walk rate from a paltry 6.5% to 10.6%. The result gave him a wRC+ of 152, ten points higher than he put up in rookie ball, and gave opposing pitchers nightmares.

It was an incredible season, but probably the most iconic 2016 Tyler O’Neill moment is the three-run home run he hit in the playoffs. Andrew Moore had pitched a gem—nine innings of shutout baseball with a perfecto he took into the seventh before it was broken up by a bunt base hit—and finished by striking out the side in the ninth, but the Generals hadn’t been able to get anything going offensively. In the bottom of the tenth, Tyler O’Neill finally got a mistake pitch, and he did not miss it:

That’s a terrible pitch, to be sure, almost as terrible as the video quality (if you want to see more, with audio by the wonderful Brandon Liebhaber, that’s here). Tyler had worked the count full against Jaye Chapman, and you can see how much he hesitates before throwing that pitch—I cut off about a minute of hemming and hawing when making this gif—and I still don’t understand why Chapman didn’t just walk him and take his chances with the bases loaded and two out against Dario Pizzano. But he didn’t, and the O’Neill-led Generals would proceed to march their way through the playoffs and to a Southern League championship.

But maybe Jaye Chapman was looking at the scouting report and seeing that O’Neill, after getting off to a blistering start in the first half of the season, had been slowed up a little in the second half.

The biggest difference here is the dropoff in average, although the falloff in slugging is something to examine as well. O’Neill hit just as many home runs in the second half as the first, but the big difference came in the number of doubles he hit, which fell precipitously in the second half, from 20 down to 6. Some of the dropoff is to be expected; O’Neill had arrived in the Southern League an unknown quantity, but halfway through the season teams had seen enough of him that they were able to start adjusting, and as a result, Tyler started to see even more offspeed pitches. He was still punishing mistakes for home runs, but instead of line-drive doubles, he was shooting singles through holes in the infield, or hanging back and taking his walks—an encouraging sign, even as his strikeouts also crept up.

To illustrate this, here are the kinds of hits O’Neill collected in the first couple months of the season:

Here he is punishing an Anthony DeSclafani—yeah, that Anthony DeSclafani—curveball into the actual ocean:

Seriously, that thing clears the little park behind the fence. DeSclafani would attempt to throw O’Neill another curve the next time he was up, with the same result—except this time Tyler went to left field.

Eventually, teams got tired of Tyler O’Neill making their pitchers look very bad, and so they adjusted. They started throwing him more offspeed stuff away to see if he’d chase—which he did, at times, leading to the increase in his K rate, but also he took a lot more walks. They laid off giving him sweet sweet fastballs to feast on. He still got his hits, but they looked different from before, like this, from right around the All-Star Break:

So teams were already starting to try to induce weaker contact off Tyler by pitching him offspeed or low in the zone, trying to avoid anything in the middle of the plate. But because the AA level is full of pitchers still working on their secondary offerings and perfecting their fastball command, you have results like this power-on-power matchup, O’Neill vs. Braves pitching prospect Lucas Sims, who boasts a mid-to-high-90s fastball:

Even if his numbers slid a little in the second half, O’Neill was a one-man wrecking crew throughout the Southern League all season, and was rewarded with renewed prospect interest from places like MLB Pipeline and Baseball America. O’Neill carried his breakout year past the summer, when he went to the Arizona Fall League and, in true Tyler O’Neill fashion, immediately made a splash when he became the first AFL player to hit a home run off a batting tee during the Bowman Hitting Challenge:

After a stint with Team Canada for the WBC, O’Neill reported to Triple-A Tacoma, excited to keep his career rolling.

But so far in Triple-A, the 22-year-old has run into somewhat of a buzzsaw facing MLB-experienced pitchers who have better offspeed stuff that doesn’t look like obvious junk coming over the plate. After riding a rocketship in his development, Tyler O’Neill has to do his least favorite thing: he has to stand still. He has to study, and learn, watching tape at the feet of manager Pat Listach and spending extra time in the cages with hitting coach Dave Berg. It’s so boring. It’s so necessary.

The good news is that O’Neill hasn’t lost the lessons he learned last year in Jackson. His K% and BB% are both within tenths of percentage points to where they were last year. His BABIP of .282 is also low, considering his career-high line-drive percentage of 24%, which suggests that there’s some poor luck at play for the surprisingly speedy slugger. Eventually, that good process will have good results, and it looks like things are starting to take a turn for O’Neill. Over his last ten games, while he’s still averaging just .235, he’s slugging .559 with an OBP of .381. After striking out 35 times in May, he’s got that down to just 19 for June while steadily increasing his walks. He’s still falling behind too often in counts—and when he does, his slash line is a very sad .135/.133/.250 (last year it was .238/.251/.423, for comparison)—but when he’s able to work at-bats, lately he’s delivered some clutch hits. He homered twice on the 24th and drove in a season-high 7 runs, one short of tying his career high, to lead Tacoma to victory over the Astros of the PCL, the Reno Aces. And just last night, he hit a crucial RBI single to secure a Tacoma comeback victory in which they rallied back from an 0-8 deficit.

Last year, Tyler O’Neill showed that he was able to take instruction and change his plate approach in a meaningful way. There’s no reason to believe he won’t do that again. The Mariners could have left O’Neill down at Double-A to wreck a new, slightly different world in the Texas League, but the team decided to accelerate his development, putting him at a level where he’s significantly younger than the average player. If you’ve ever taken a cross-country flight, you know the experience of feeling like you’re standing still while you’re actually hurtling through space at speeds that would melt our ancestors’ faces off. It feels so interminable, and then you get off and you’re on a different side of the country. Tyler O’Neill is already well on his way on that journey, even if it might not look like that from the outside.