Paul O’Neill had accomplishments in his eight seasons in Cincinnati. He made an All-Star team, received MVP votes and hit in the middle of the lineup for the 1990 champion Reds.
Yet, he had declining production in his age-29 season before being traded to the Yankees. The transaction was largely met with surprise or disapproval, in part because there was strong sentiment the player he was traded for (Roberto Kelly) was better and because concern lingered whether he would ever hit lefties.
But a shrewd general manager named Gene Michael believed O’Neill’s lefty bat, patience and intensity were elements that would help the 1993 Yankees.
I have been thinking about O’Neill a lot this season as I stretch to find a comparison to what is occurring with DJ LeMahieu. For the Yankee success since O’Neill arrived — they have not had a losing season from 1993-2018 — is usually about big success stories from the minor leagues such as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Or from the large imported star such as Roger Clemens, Hidkei Matsui, Alex Rodriguez or CC Sabathia.
It is harder to find the established quality player elsewhere who needed the magnitude of New York to bullhorn to show the baseball world just how good of an all-around player they were.
But think about LeMahieu in comparison to O’Neill.
LeMahieu had accomplishments in his eight seasons in Colorado. He made three All-Star teams, earned three Gold Gloves and won a batting title.
Yet, he had declining production in his age-29 season before signing with the Yankees. The transaction was largely met with surprise or disapproval, in part because there was a strong sentiment Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar were better and would have to sacrifice at-bats for LeMahieu, around whom there was lingering concern whether he could hit outside of Coors Field.
But a shrewd GM named Brian Cashman believed LeMahieu’s contact skills, versatility and professionalism were elements that would help the 2019 Yankees.
Even a quarter of a century later — even with how the internet has made the world smaller and any game could be seen anywhere — sometimes you still have to come to Broadway (or The Bronx) as O’Neill did then and LeMahieu has done now to gain the full appreciation of the sport.
“You know what you realize in New York — and maybe I know this more now than I did even when I was playing — is that the fans take more pride in the legacy and the results of the organization than other places,” O’Neill said. “In most other places, a ballgame is a social night out. Here they are coming to see you win, and their mood the next day is going to be impacted by whether the Yankees won or not.”
O’Neill appreciated the comparison, seeing similarities in hitting mindset. In Cincinnati, his manager at the time, Lou Piniella, particularly wanted O’Neill to pull for power and “that wasn’t me. I didn’t have the same talent as Aaron Judge. I had to hit how I was comfortable and that brought out my best.”
He was influenced by then-hitting coach Rick Down to develop a toe-tap timing mechanism that allowed him to better access all fields and exceed .300 in each of his first six Yankees seasons, including winning a batting title in 1994. He had a .914 OPS in those six seasons, the same as LeMahieu had entering Wednesday’s Subway Series game against the Mets, plus LeMahieu was leading the AL in hitting.
“I appreciate the comparison,” O’Neill said. “I definitely wanted to hit like that, use the whole field, adjust with runners in scoring position and to the game situation. Even today I don’t believe you can have a lineup of all sluggers. Lineups need to be balanced.”
While the teams were in London, Boston manager Alex Cora cited LeMahieu’s contact skills having a team-wide influence on the Yankees’ approach, particularly with runners in scoring position. The Yankees were good with runners in scoring position in 2018 — especially by comparison with the rest of the sport — but this year they are excelling and led the majors in batting average (.303), on-base percentage (.378) and being second in slugging (.520) entering Wednesday. It was 253/.343/.442 in 2018.
From 1993-98, among those with at least 800 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, only Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor and Mike Piazza had a better batting average than O’Neill’s .337. LeMahieu leads the majors this year with a .473 average with runners in scoring position. That would top the best mark by a Yankee since 1993 if it persists.
That would be O’Neill’s .428 in 1997.