Nobody in minor league baseball had a better on-base percentage in 2012 than Mike O’Neill. The 24-year-old St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect had a .458 OBP in 520 plate appearances, which is notable for a pair of reasons: His name doesn’t appear on top-prospect lists and his eye-popping on-base numbers weren’t a fluke.
At the University of Southern California, O’Neill had a .407 OBP. In 2010, with short-season Batavia, the 31st-round pick got on base at a .393 clip. Last year, playing at two levels, his OBP was .431. In three professional seasons, his slash line is .337/.443/.429 and he has more than twice as many walks  as strikeouts . Equating him to Wade Boggs would be hyperbole, but his numbers aren’t dissimilar to what the hall-of-famer put up as an undervalued minor leaguer.
There are reasons for skepticism. The left-handed hitter stands 5-foot-9 and has just one home run in 211 games. Despite above-average speed, he isn’t an accomplished base-stealer. He also has been old for his level, as he spent most of this season with High-A Palm Beach before logging 13 games in Double-A Springfield.
Is O’Neill legit? Only time will tell, but until he stops getting on base at a Boggsian rate, he probably deserves the benefit of a doubt. Arizona Fall League pitchers aren’t among those questioning him. His OBP with the Surprise Saguaros currently stands at .446.
David Laurila: Why are you a good hitter?
Mike O’Neill: I’d say it’s my demeanor and how I never want to give in. I just don’t want the pitcher to beat me. I’ll do anything under my power to not let that happen. It doesn’t matter what the count is, or what the situation is. I always feel that I have an opportunity to succeed. That mindset creates positive energy for me.
DL: You have a black belt in karate. Does that have an impact on your hitting skills?
MO: Absolutely. It helps with my focus and my mental clarity. When I was growing up, I did a lot of karate and in getting that black belt I was able to really block out any distractions. I learned how to focus in on one thing and use technique, and that has transitioned into baseball pretty well for me.
During the off-season, that’s how I train. I go back to my old dojo and work out there.
DL: How would you describe your approach?
MO: I know my specific skill set. I’m not a guy who is going to hit 30 home runs a year. I’m a guy that needs to get on base. My strength is hitting line drives to all fields and my approach is to sit on a pitch, and if I get it, I can’t miss it. Fortunately, I haven’t been missing too often.
The pitcher knows what type of hitter I am, and from the scouting reports, I have a general idea of what he likes to do. I know what I can do with the bat, and won’t give in to the pitcher. I’m looking for a specific pitch and a specific zone. During the course of my at bats in game, that might change, based on what the pitcher is dictating. If that happens, I just go from there. You have to constantly be adjusting in this game. You have to keep your head on a swivel.
DL: What is your approach on the first pitch of an at bat?
MO: It depends. Generally, I’m a leadoff hitter, so in my first at bat of the game I like to see a couple of pitches and kind of wait out the pitcher. I’m a little more passive. I’ll try to see pitches and then attack. Later in the game, if I know that he’s going to this pitch, in this count, I’ll attack it.
DL: Are pitch recognition and plate discipline two different things?
MO: Plate discipline is not chasing balls, or even strikes. Pitch recognition is whether it’s a fastball, changeup, slider or curveball. You have to adjust, so if you can recognize a pitch and it’s in the zone you’re looking for, that helps you all the more.
Some people say they look for different spots, like the arm angle, but for me, pitch recognition is just a gift that I have. I recognize pitches pretty quickly. It’s not a specific things I’ve worked on; I’ve always just had it.
DL: Do you have 20/20 eyesight?
MO: I haven’t had it checked recently, but whenever I go to the doctors, they’re impressed. They tell me it’s perfect. I don’t know if that means 20/20 or if it’s better than that. But in order to see all the different spins — and with the velocity of the ball — you need to have exceptional hand-eye coordination.
DL: Does a hitter need to take a lot of strikes to have a high on-base percentage?
MO: Not necessarily. I’m not up there looking to walk. I’m looking for a specific pitch and if the pitcher doesn’t give it to me, I’m taking until I get it. I’m not going to swing if it’s out of the zone I’m looking for. That’s kind of what generates walks for me. I’m patient, and once I get my pitch, I’m swinging. I’m attacking the baseball. I’ve just been fortunate to get a lot of walks, especially this year.
DL: You’ve hit better at each level as you’ve moved up. Why?
MO: I’ve matured each year. There is that process of becoming a better hitter. I don’t think there is a point where you can say, “I’m at the pinnacle of my ability.” I just keep working hard and trying to learn more things. My approach keeps getting better.
I’m short and quick to the ball. There’s nothing fancy about the way I hit. I try to keep things compact. The fewer things that are going on, the easier it is to make corrections if something isn’t going your way.
DL: Any final thoughts on your approach?
MO: I’m always looking at where the defense is. That kind of dictates how they’re trying to pitch you. You have an idea of what the pitcher is going to do when you step into the box, and you go from there.
I’m looking to drive the ball up the middle — my strength is up-the-middle and the other way — but I can turn on the ball, too. It’s not like if they pitch me away, I don’t want to hit it away. And if they come in, I’m going to turn on it. I want to keep the defense honest. I look at where they’re playing me and how they’re pitching me. There are a lot of holes out there, so I try to hit line drives and hope they fall.