If only Tyler O’Neill could have asked Joey Votto to pass the OBP.
“What’s that, kid?” the five-time All-Star would have said to his Canadian countryman. “You want the butter?”
No, Mr. Votto. The on-base percentage, please.
What a thrill it must have been for Cardinals outfield prospect O’Neill to share a table in Toronto with the Reds’ first baseman during last month’s Baseball Canada awards banquet.
Canadian Baseball Network scribe and Hall of Famer Bob Elliott was curious. What did O’Neill ask Votto while in his midst?
“Very rarely do I have a conversation (with young guys) about how to perform,” Votto answered. “Players always seem to get the message by watching and observing.”
Then O’Neill would be wise to study Votto’s approach. If he can improve his on-base percentage, he might find himself playing against Votto sometime this season.
Where O’Neill spends most of 2018, to me, is one of the more intriguing questions as spring training gets off the ground down in Jupiter. A competition could heat up between Harrison Bader and O’Neill for the fourth outfielder job that opened up when Randal Grichuk got shipped to Toronto. (This Canada-themed blog is best paired with your favorite tune from The Band.)
Perhaps the speedy and intriguing Jose Adolis Garcia enters the picture, but Bader and O’Neill seem to be the lead candidates. And Bader likely has the edge, due to his defensive flexibility and his experience.
Bader broke in last season and logged 32 games in a Cardinals uniform.
O’Neill awaits his major-league debut.
Working in O’Neill’s favor is his power. Serious power. The former third-round pick of the Mariners, acquired last season by the Cardinals in a trade that shipped Marco Gonzales to Seattle, slugged .499 and knocked 31 homers during his time with the Mariners’ and Cardinals’ Class AAA teams. He hit 24 homers and slugged .508 at Class AA the season before. He hit 32 homers and slugged .558 at High-A in 2015.
But O’Neill filed a .321 on-base percentage at Class AAA last season. Not good. He struck out 151 times in 495 at-bats. Very bad. He walked just 55 times. Just OK.
Compare that to OBP-king Votto, who in his 11th major league season posted a .454 on-base percentage and struck out just 83 times in 559 at-bats while taking a whopping 134 walks. He hit 36 homers and slugged .578, too.
No one is saying O’Neill, 22, is the next Votto. But maybe he’s a 30-homer guy in the majors — if he can get on base often enough to stick in the league.
“Strikeouts are going to be a part of my game,” O’Neill said during his Winter Warm-Up appearance. “That’s just the way it is. The progression process is just about keeping them cut down, taking my walks. Walks are a big thing.”
Elliott knows baseball better than most, and he knows Canadians in baseball better than anyone. When folks ask him to predict the next Canadian hitter who will make a major-league splash, he names O’Neill.
This offseason, for the third time in his career, O’Neill was named the winner of the Randy Echlin Memorial award, which is Canadian Baseball Network’s honor for the top offensive Canadian minor leaguer. And he appeared at No. 51 on Elliott’s annual list of most influential Canadians in baseball. That was 50 spots below Votto.
“Growing up, looking out across the border, I saw bright lights, stronger arms, stronger bats, players who had more exposure than we did,” Votto once told Elliott. “There was more TV coverage, more support from their communities. All we heard as kids was how everything was better in the U.S. when it came to baseball. Hearing that all those years I couldn’t help but feel inferior. Some Canadian kids have that feeling because we spend so much time on hockey. It’s important young kids understand that kids from here can make it in baseball.”
This quote reminded me of something the well-sculpted O’Neill said before he left St. Louis last month:
“Playing baseball in Canada, you have to stand out somehow, and for me, that was getting a little bigger, being stronger than other guys, being able to hit the ball out of the park in cold weather,” said O’Neill. “That was my calling card ever since I was in 10th, 11th grade. I’m not going to change my identity. That has been what’s carried me to the point where I am today.”
His power has him on the cusp of the majors as spring training begins. A little more OBP might push him over the edge.