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Quick study: 'Monster' O'Neill learning to harness his blend of velocity off the bat, speed on the bases
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Quick study: 'Monster' O'Neill learning to harness his blend of velocity off the bat, speed on the bases

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LOS ANGELES — For so much of Tyler O’Neill’s run with the Cardinals the focus has been on getting him enough opportunity and helping him make enough contact to unlock what happens when the slugger gets the ball up in the air.

Along they way they’ve learned what he can do when his game is up to speed.

“I’ve always had wheels, too, so it’s not really surprising to me,” O’Neill said Monday, sitting along foul territory at Dodger Stadium after taking batting practice. “People will find out sooner or later. It’s about being able to utilize that speed. You can be as fast as you want and not be a great baserunner. So you’ve got to put it together eventually.”

The Cardinals left fielder is one of the few players in baseball to put together premium velocity off his bat and in his cleats. O’Neill ranks in the 98th percentile in baseball this season with a sprint speed of 29.8 feet per second, according to Baseball Savant. That ranks seventh in the majors, and he’s one of only two in the top 10 for sprint speed to also average 92.8 mph on exit velocity off his bat. Around two stints already this season on the injured list, O’Neill has been one of the rare power-speed producers in the majors.

He returned to the lineup last weekend in Arizona with homers in three consecutive games — all with a fractured finger. He hit another Monday, in his team’s 9-4 series-opening loss to the Dodgers, to give him four in his past five games and 12 overall.

“He’s a monster,” teammate Yadier Molina said.

The work O’Neill has done to connect the raw power in his bat with an improved approach at the plate is similar to what he’s done to take his straightaway speed and bend it into better baserunning and fielding.

In 2020, his closing speed on the grass won him the Gold Glove Award in left field — an award that was determined entirely by advanced metrics that rewarded his fleetness and cornerback-like coverage. In 2021, he’s brought that jolt to the bases more consistently, stealing a career high four bases already, but more often snagging the extra base when possible, turning a single into a double, or wheeling around from first on someone else’s double. O’Neill can trace his footprints back to a focus he was presented in 2018.

“Unless you homer — and Tyler uses his speed on that, too, because he gets around the bases real quick — almost every run other than a homer takes place with some baserunning involved,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “I’ve always thought to myself, well, if you’re scoring most of your runs and they have to be once you get on the bases (you) probably should spend a lot of time working on it. You work like crazy to hit for what reason? To get on base and drive in runs in. Might as well be good (to practice) when you’re on base. And Tyler’s done a great job with that.”

O’Neill said it was one of the first things he noticed and had explained when he joined the Cardinals after a trade from Seattle in 2017. He recalled Monday times at Class AAA and on rehab stints in Class AA where baserunning was a recurring drill.

Some of them he still does, like heading over to third base during batting practice to go through reactions and reads to get better breaks on balls in the dirt, for example.

Speed is only as fast as it’s used.

“Just trying to help the team, to be a better all-around player,” O’Neill said. “I know I have the tools to make an impact out there. Just trying to be dynamic and affect that game.”

Only Minnesota’s Byron Buxton, one of the game’s “dynamic” outfielders, ranks in the top 10 in both sprint speed (29.6 feet per second) and exit velocity (94.2 mph), according to Statcast. Others who are close included Atlanta’s dynamo outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (94.5 mph exit velo; 29.2 sprint speed) and former Cardinals minor-league and new Texas sensation Adolis Garcia (92.9 mph exit velo; 28.1 sprint speed).

O’Neill is 98th percentile in sprint speed, and he’s 94th percentile in average exit velocity.

O’Neill keeps pace

He fractured his finger stealing second in San Diego and has had to modify his bat — going to an angled knob — and his grip, interlocking his fingers like he does in golf. He will wear a mitten-like protective glove on the bases to avoid another injury, but he said Monday he’s eager for more steals, that that’s another stride he intends to make in his game. And at the plate, if he can turn a single into a double with his speed that boosts his slugging percentage, too.

“Getting into scoring position for the boys,” O’Neill said. “That’s what we want to do. If we can get that extra 90 feet that’s a big deal. Might be scoring instead of being stranded and second base or third base. We take pride in that, and I am definitely not an exception.”

Liberatore’s golden for Team USA

Matthew Liberatore, the Cardinals’ top pitching prospect, pitched Team USA to a victory Monday in the first game of the Olympic qualifying tournament held at Port St. Lucie, Fla. Tabbed as Team USA’s opening-game starter, Liberatore pitch five superb innings and allowed one run on five hits and a walk. He struck out five in a 7-1 victory against Nicaragua.

The tournament will determine the countries that compete in the Summer Games later this year in Tokyo, and Team USA has not yet qualified. Liberatore, 21, is eligible to continue with the national team until the Cardinals add him to the 40-man roster.

DeJong set for more exams

Shortstop Paul DeJong will go through another round of imaging and exams Thursday to see the healing in his fractured rib and determine if he can accelerate his baseball activities when the team opens a homestand that evening against Cincinnati.

DeJong has been going through light workouts at Busch Stadium. He’s been able to throw, take grounders, and takes some swings, though the Cardinals have been conservative with the intensity of the drills to avoid aggravating or worsening the broken rib.

The team plans to send DeJong on a rehab assignment

“He’s making progress,” Shildt said. The manager added that if scans reveal improved healing “he’ll ramp things up a little more aggressively, I imagine.”

What’s with all the walks?

Within Monday’s loss was the Cardinals’ 15th bases-loaded walk of the season, giving them more in two months of 2021 than they’ve had in every other season since 1974 but 2008. That club had 17 bases-loaded walks, setting the franchise’s modern record since the stat has been tracked. Three other times in the past 45 years have the Cardinals had 13 bases-loaded walks: 2011, 1976, and 2019.

“Part of the game,” Molina said recently when asked about the walks. “Part of the game. We’re going to be aggressive and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Part of the game.”

An issue for the club are walks like on Sunday when they intentionally walk one batter to get a better matchup — and then gift-wrap a walk to the next batter, botching the whole enterprise. On Sunday, Tyler Webb’s bases-loaded walk came on four pitches.

The Cardinals entered the series in LA leading the majors with 236 walks allowed, 18 more than Cincinnati’s second-most. When Jack Flaherty hit Mookie Betts with a pitch in the first inning, the Cardinals took over that lead, too, with 40. The bullpen as set the most benevolent pace in the majors with 120 walks in 187 2/3 innings.

Roster moves

The Cardinals made official Monday the advertised move for a bullpen reinforcement.

Seth Elledge, a righthander, was added to the active roster after flying to Los Angeles to join the team there Sunday night. He takes Kodi Whitley’s spot after back spasms sidelined Whitley last weekend.

• Tyler Pike, a lefty recently signed out of independent ball, will be assigned to the Class AA pitching staff. Pike, 27, had a 2.25 ERA in two starts and 12 innings for Fargo-Moorhead in the American Association, where he’s pitched well the past three seasons, going 12-8 with a 3.41 ERA in 29 starts.

Because of injuries at the higher levels and Liberatore’s Olympic spin the Cardinals wanted to add some depth, and they collect lefties when possible.

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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