Mike O’Neill was drafted out of USC as an outfielder in the 31st round of the 2010 draft but has yet to escape single-A. Perhaps that will change soon. At 24-years-old, he’s one of the older players in the Florida State League, and he was recently chosen to play in the FSL’s 2012 All-Star game where he went 0-for-3 with 2 walks, a strikeout, and run scored batting leadoff for the South. If you make it to the end of the post, I’ll reward you with some video.
Those of you who religiously check the Daily Farm Reports probably noticed that O’Neill can draw a walk (12.6% BB/PA). But have you noticed his ability to avoid strikeouts (4.9% K/PA)?
Out of all high-A (including Florida State League, Carolina League, and California League) players with at least 150 plate-appearances in 2012, none of them compare to Mike O’Neill, who strikes out only 5% of the time. This seems to be a habit of O’Neill’s rather than a statistical anomaly, at least according to this table created by Erik Manning in 2010. We can see that O’Neill had similar results at USC by walking more (11.5%) often than he struck out (6.2%).
If the Cardinals drafted him in 2010 for his impressive BB/K ratio, then he surely hasn’t disappointed them. O’Neill has never struck out more often than he’s walked in a professional season, though his rates were equal (13.7%) in 95 plate-appearances for Quad Cities last year. In total, his walks have approximately doubled his strikeouts. From what I can tell, the only other player approaching this feat within St. Louis’ farm system is Jermaine Curtis (8% K/PA, 15.6% BB/PA).
Is this sustainable? Is there any precedent for this type of player in Major League Baseball?
The highest BB/K (1.29) among qualified hitters in 2012 belongs to Carlos Lee, and there’s only nine players total walking as often as they strike out. If the parameters of this search are extended back to 1990 (minimum of 1000 PAs), there’s exactly one player who managed to walk twice as often as he struck out, and his name is Tony Gwynn. This leader board list runs the gamut of hitters from dominant (i.e. Gwynn, Bonds, Pujols) to good (i.e. O. Smith, W. Randolph, G. Jeffries) to bad (i.e. Oquendo, LaValliere). Only eight of the hitters in this sample own better than 1.5 BB/K ratios.
Mike O’Neill will not walk twice as often as he strikes out in the big leagues, assuming he ever gets there, and that is a huge assumption given that he has yet to dip his toes in double-A. I feel much more comfortable believing that O’Neill can continue to walk more often than he strikes out, though this may not be inherently valuable given the vast array of players that have done so in the past have been all over the offensive spectrum.
O’Neill has performed respectably since his professional debut, posting wOBAs of .371 in 2010, .400+ for Batavia and Quad Cities in 2011, and .385 for Palm Beach in 2012.
Of course, reason for skepticism exists as O’Neill possesses zero power. Well, maybe not zero. He did hit 1 HR in 2011 about which he admitted, “I had to pinch my arm to make sure I wasn’t dreaming,” in this recent interview at Redbird Rants. Furthermore, much of his value to date has depended on high batting averages on balls in play. His BABIP rests at .362 in 2012 and .358 for his career. Unless his speed is better than his stolen base ability suggests, sustaining such good fortune is unsupported by a relatively normal batted ball profile (slightly higher than average line drives and ground balls).
In an era where educated fans eagerly regress improbable numbers to league average rates, it’s important to recognize that a player like Mike O’Neill might not pan out as a professional baseball player, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to celebrate and monitor statistical quirks like O’Neill’s ability to avoid striking out.
So as you pour over minor league box scores to track the latest Shelby Miller outing in Memphis, count how many hits the Wong/Taveras tandem accumulated in Springfield, or root for Seth Maness to rattle off another stretch of innings without issuing a base-on-ball, let me add another stat to your list. Check to see if Mike O’Neill strikes out. Because I doubt he did.
Here’s some footage of Mike O’Neill and the other Palm Beach Cardinals (Starlin Rodriguez and Anthony Ferrara, Jr.) in the FSL’s 2012 All-Star Game, complete with some really bizarre mascot stuff… if you’re into that kind of thing.