Cardinals' Mike O'Neill Gives Pitchers Fits

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Mike O'Neill knows his job.

Other hitters can drive in runs. Other guys can swing for the fences. When O'Neill steps to the plate, he's looking to be a pest.

Pitchers may not fear that O'Neill is going to punish a mistake by parking it over the fence, but after he fouls off pitch after pitch, they may wish he would.

The 5-foot-9 outfielder is a leadoff hitter. And as he sees it, his job is both to get on base and to see as many pitches as possible to help the other hitters down the lineup.

"It does my team no good to get out on the first pitch," O'Neill said. "If I can get on after seeing three, four or five pitches, that's great, but even if I don't get on, I can tell them a little scouting report when I come back to the dugout."

Few have done that job better this year. The Cardinals' 31st-round pick in 2010 out of Southern California, O'Neill recently earned a promotion to Double-A Springfield by hitting .339/.440/.409 with high Class A Palm Beach. As a leadoff hitter, O'Neill proved to be an ideal rally instigator.

"He has really worked to improve that facet of his game," Cardinals farm director John Vuch said. "That's something he's worked hard at. He's always been good at it, but he's taken it to the next level. It's impressive when you have a player that knows what their strengths are."

O'Neill revels in the long plate appearance. He'll foul off pitch after pitch while looking for the one he wants, and if he doesn't get it, he'll take his walk.

"My hitting coach told me that this year half my hits were with two strikes," O'Neill said. "I'm very comfortable with two strikes. I'm comfortable even if I'm 0-2. I have the pitcher right where I want him because now I've seen two pitches."

It may sound like bluster, but it's not. With Palm Beach, O'Neill walked 70 times while striking out 24 in 386 at-bats. No other player in the minors comes close to matching that three-to-one walk-to-strikeout ratio. In a survey of Florida State League managers and coaches, O'Neill was unanimously picked as the player with the best strike-zone judgement in the league.

"He has great plate discipline. He has great pitch recognition," Palm Beach manager Johnny Rodriguez said. "He can really feel if a pitch is in the strike zone or not."

Low Profile

The Cardinals front office has noticed as well. O'Neill leads the organization in pitches seen per plate appearance. He also is at the top of the list among Cardinals minor leaguers in quality plate appearances.

When St. Louis drafted O'Neill, it viewed him as an organization player—being a 5-foot-9 outfielder without great speed or power doesn't exactly excite scouts. He got just 70 at-bats combined in his first two years at Southern California, then earned a starting job as a junior but went undrafted. A year later, he was an inexpensive senior sign. Even in college, though, he had patience at the plate—in all four years at USC, he walked more than he struck out.

Since signing with the Cardinals, O'Neill has done more to make people notice him. He has posted at least a .393 on-base percentage in every minor league stop. He has never struck out more than he's walked—a streak that stretches back to at least his senior year of high school.

"He's a guy. He's exceeded already what people expected him to do," Vuch said.

O'Neill has played center field throughout his pro career, but he has played significantly more left field than center this year. His arm isn't really suited for right field. Once he reaches base, he's neither a big asset nor a liability on the basepaths, although the Cardinals hope that he can improve that as he climbs the ladder.

"Right now he's probably an average runner," Vuch said. "We have an offseason conditioning program. We'll probably work with him to take advantage of what his strengths are. We'd love to see a tick more speed out of him."

New Challenge

To build on the promotion to Springfield, the Cardinals will send O'Neill to the Arizona Fall League. Left unsaid by the Cardinals is that they have to be as interested as everyone else to see if he can maintain his on-base prowess against tougher pitching.

"He deserved to be at Double-A long before he got there, but we didn't want him to go up there to be a fourth or fifth outfielder" Vuch said.

O'Neill now should face pitchers with better control, so will he still be able to draw as many walks?

"He's not a guy who has a ton of power, so starting pitchers will continue to challenge him," Vuch said. "We'll have to see. A lot of guys who don't have power, as they climb the ladder, pitchers say, 'I'm not going to walk this guy.' "

O'Neill doesn't have much power, with one home run in 669 pro at-bats. His career slugging percentage is lower than his on-base percentage. As O'Neill says, he's a leadoff hitter—other guys can hit the two-run home runs. He wants to be the guy on base who jogs home when that home run is hit. But he is trying to show that he can be enough of a threat that pitchers can't groove a pitch when they get behind in the count. He's done it well so far, which explains his .327 career batting average.

"He'll go the opposite way on pitches, but if you can come inside, he will pull the ball," Vuch said.

His late-season promotion won't provide conclusive evidence of how he'll handle Double-A pitching, but in his 13-game stint he did not miss a beat. He was hitting .563/.643/.719 with eight walks and two strikeouts in 32 at-bats. That raised his overall numbers to .356/.458/.433, which was second best in the minors in batting average and best in the minors in on-base percentage.

O'Neill will get his chance to show what he can do this October in the AFL. If he manages to keep piling up the walks there, he'll be able to convince a few more skeptics that there is a big league job in is future.

"I think of him as one of those kind of guys who had to prove himself every step of the way," Vuch said. "He'll have to do that throughout that career . . . He's 5-foot-9 at best. Usually you have to have plus-plus speed to be that small. You have to see him every day to appreciate what he does."