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Tyler O'Neill flexes more than his might, aims to be 'a contact hitter with power'

Tyler O'Neill flexes more than his might, aims to be 'a contact hitter with power'

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JUPITER, Fla. • A Houston Astros pitching prospect who generated social media buzz this winter by unleashing a pitch, after a running start, at 111.6 mph, decided to test Tyler O’Neill with upper-register velocity at the upper limits of the strike zone. O’Neill had been teased into a strikeout by lesser pitches a year ago, but he spent the past six weeks addressing that “hole” atop the zone, and Friday night Corbin Martin delivered.

It was a whisker high.

O’Neill fouled it off.

“Wouldn’t have been able to handle that,” manager Mike Shildt said to bench coach Oliver Marmol in the dugout. “Wouldn’t have been able to foul that pitch off last year.”

Martin tried again, a touch higher. O’Neill fouled that off.

Ahead in the count, 0-2, Martin spun two loose breaking balls out of the strike zone, exactly like O’Neill chased after as a rookie. He ignored both. On 2-2, Martin went back to the fastball up, at 94 mph. This pitch, a tad lower in the strike zone, O’Neill crushed. The towering fly ball carried high and over the left-field wall at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches toward the Astros’ offices. As the ball shrank from view, according to one Cardinals’ description, it wasn’t the power that echoed but O’Neill’s process.

“Good sign,” hitting coach Jeff Albert said. “Challenged again with the same fastball, and he got it. It’s impressive (power). That’s obviously a great tool to have, but it’s not the only tool I think he has. A lot of times when you have one big tool it overshadows your other abilities. He’s trying to just become a more complete hitter.”

In what should be the spring that launches him into the majors for opening day, O’Neill has two hits in his first 12 at-bats — both home runs, one to each side of the field. The 23-year-old outfielder hit 36 home runs this past season, including nine in the majors, and the Cardinals have reserved a spot for him as a spare outfielder, for now. Without health from Marcell Ozuna’s shoulder or success from Dexter Fowler’s bat, additional playing time would find O’Neill sooner than planned. This season already is a prelude to when left field could be his for the taking, by 2020. He’ll be as prominent as his production demands. O’Neill must “continue to hone his craft knowing that he’s got a chance to be an everyday player — at some point here,” Shildt said. “When that point is, who can say?”

By any measure, statistical or tape, O’Neill has punished the minors enough with 57 homers at Class AAA in his past 194 games there. His 81 homers at Class AA or higher in 324 games is the equivalent pace of 41 homers in a big-league season.

To connect in the majors, O’Neill has to make greater contact. A swarm of strikeouts engulfed his rookie year, including 29 in his final 59 at-bats. This winter, O’Neill drilled with Albert to adapt his swing and sharpen his nose for the strike zone. The spiked-haired boy from British Columbia aimed to do for his swing what he did as a teen for his body — take a core talent and augment it, work on it, build strength all around it. Because before he shed his ice skates and stacked on muscle, this Canadian kid could always hit.

“I was just hitting, hitting, hitting. That’s how I am,” O’Neill said. “I’ve given myself a chance.”

HOCKEY FIRST

As a tot, he quit tee ball because it wasn’t hockey.

Other kids couldn’t catch or throw or catch his throws, and isn’t mashing a ball off a tee called golf? It was too slow, too dull. O’Neill started skating lessons at 3, and offered this scouting report on his ability: “Always a fast dude on ice.” The Canucks were his team. Hockey was his dream. And tee ball could kick the dirt it called home. His father, a Vancouver-area firefighter who won titles as a bodybuilder, lured him back to baseball at 9 or 10 as a summer pastime. When O’Neill won a championship at the league’s “mosquito” level, he caught the bug.

“My passion directed me toward baseball,” he said.

O’Neill played hockey until he was 15, tried rugby in high school, and played around with volleyball and soccer. In each sport what today’s musclebound slugger lacked then stood out — size. O’Neill said he was “a couple of inches shorter, below average weight” and late to mature as a teenager. On the rink, he’d plunge into the corners with a wilderness of 6-foot-tall peers, and fended for himself, “five-foot-nothing on skates.” In baseball, he found a different dimension. He didn’t have to stand as tall, lift as much, or check as hard to hit the ball as far. Or farther.

By the time his body caught up with his talent and he followed his dad into the weight room, O’Neill already had the swing to catapult homers. Then he added strength. Attention followed. He joined travel ball, scaled the ranks of Canadian baseball, and realized he “could make a life of this,” or at least land a college scholarship. On the power-happy showcase circuit, he starred. In 2013, Seattle drafted O’Neill in the third round. He was 17.

“For me, hitting balls, hitting balls far – that was my calling card to get noticed,” O’Neill said. “For me to pop up on the draft boards and Division I radars, I had to hit the long ball. I figured that out at a relatively young age, young enough where I was able to progress and provide that as a kid. I had to make people look.”

Power got him closer to majors. Alone, it won’t keep him there.

CONTACT + POWER

One day, years ago, in the back hallways of the Cardinals’ complex at Roger Dean Stadium, Shildt, a minor-league manager, bumped into Mark McGwire, a legend.

“You know, you were quite the power hitter,” Shildt recalled saying.

“I wasn’t a power hitter,” McGwire replied.

“I was like, ‘Well, who is?’” Shildt said with a laugh Saturday in his office off the same hallway. “He said, ‘I was a contact hitter that had power.’ Oh.”

As hitting coach for the Cardinals, McGwire spoke to hitters about finding an area of the strike zone where they know they can do damage, and widen that strike zone based on the count. O’Neill described a similar view of the zone Saturday — and how he lost track of it last season. Promoted to the majors in April, O’Neill made his debut at Wrigley Field as “a kid thrown into this Chicago-St. Louis rivalry.” He stepped up as a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning, and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras asked if this was his debut. O’Neill nodded. Pitcher Jon Lester used that against him.

O’Neill didn’t see a single fastball. One cutter and three breaking balls later, O’Neill headed back to the dugout, struck out.

“I wanted to whack it,” he said. “Lester knew.”

O’Neill went back to some drills he learned in Seattle’s system — hitting against 95-mph fastballs from a 60-foot distance. Albert ratcheted that up. O’Neill has been taking batting practice at a quicker pace with pitches up in the zone. He will use a tee positioned high and a weighted bat to get a feel for speeding up his hands. And Albert will use high-velocity pitching machines to deliver fastballs at shoulder level. All the while, they’ll discuss what strikes he can drive and what breaking balls he should ignore.

Shildt called O’Neill’s homer Friday a “microcosm” of Albert’s influence on the hitters. O’Neill fouled off pitches he once couldn’t to stay alive and ignored breaking balls he often didn’t to stay focused.

The long gone result was power.

But it was contact that had power.

See how far it can take him.

“I’m always getting closer to finding out my potential,” O’Neill said. “That’s the whole thing, right? Waking up in the morning — I want to get better. Getting in the cage every day – to get better. I want to be better as a teammate. I want to be better as a ballplayer. In every regard.”

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