Twenty years ago today, Paul O’Neill went 0-for-2 with 2 walks against the Baltimore Orioles. At night’s end, fifty three games and 224 PA into the season, O’Neill was batting .417/.513/.695 with twelve home runs and more walks (37) than strikeouts (27). It was his second season in pinstripes, and O’Neill was one of the best hitters in the American League.
The deal that brought Paul O’Neill to the Bronx is one of the more understated one-sided deals in recent memory. On November 3, 1992, the Yankees sent Roberto Kelly to the Reds, in exchange for O’Neill and minor leaguer Joe De Berry (who would never play in the Majors). At the time, it seemed like a fair deal. Some would even say that the Reds had robbed the Yankees, as Kelly had just hit .272/.322/.384 with 10 HR and 28 SB, and he had a great reputation as a defender in center field. He was a power-speed type who was still in the midst of the traditional peak years, having turned 28 at the end of that season.
O’Neill, on the other hand, was looked at as something of a platoon player, and was coming off a season with career-lows in batting average (.246), home runs (14), and slugging percentage (.373). He was also nearly two years older than Kelly, and playing a less difficult position. As a sweet-swinging lefty, O’Neill made sense for the Yankees – he simply did not appear, at face value, to be as good as Kelly.
In 1993, his first season with the Yankees, O’Neill was essentially the player that most fans remember. He batted .311/.367/.504 with 20 HR and 75 RBI, good for a 134 wRC+ and 2.9 bWAR/2.6 fWAR. Kelly was nearly as good with the bat, however, hitting .319/.354/.475 (121 wRC+) with 9 HR and 21 SB. Despite playing in only 78 games due to injuries, Kelly nearly matched O’Neill with 2.2 fWAR, on the strength of his speed and defense. One year after the trade, little had changed, even with the power of hindsight.
And then, in 1994, O’Neill hit .359/.460/.603, with 25 2B, 21 HR, and 4.3 bWAR/4.3 fWAR in only 103 games (lest we forget that the season was shortened by a strike). He reach base in all but eleven games, and two of those games were pinch-hitting efforts. O’Neill was batting over .400 as late as June 17 that year, after which he batted a still-fantastic .304/.415/.530. His average never dipped below .355 at game’s end, as O’Neill battered RHP (1.085 OPS) and LHP (1.011 OPS), at home (1.149 OPS, 10 HR) and on the road (.987 OPS, 11 HR).
In addition to winning the American League’s batting title, O’Neill finished third in the Majors in average (behind Tony Gwynn and Jeff Bagwell), sixth in wRC+ (second in the AL, behind only Frank Thomas), and ninth in oWAR (fifth in the AL). It may not have been a season for the ages, as Titans walked the diamond that year, but it was a stellar season nonetheless. And from that point forward, nobody could suggest that the Yankees did not veritably pillage the Reds.
In his career with the Yankees, O’Neill amassed 26.6 bWAR/26.6 fWAR. He hit .303/.377/.492 with a 125 wRC+, averaging 21 HR and 95 RBI per season. In his first six seasons with the team, he never hit below .300, nor did he post a wRC+ below 127. O’Neill made the All-Star team four times, and had some fantastic postseason runs (including a stout .474/.545/.789 line against the Mets in 2000).
Kelly, on the other hand, struggled with health issues for the remainder of his career, playing more than 110 games once after leaving the Bronx. He did manage a solid .299/.342/.446 line (104 wRC+), but nagging injuries and declining athleticism robbed him of his speed and defense. All told, Kelly produced only 6.8 bWAR/5.5 fWAR in his last eight seasons, making only one All-Star team along the way.
With the exception of his standout 1994 season, O’Neill was never the best player on the Yankees. He was oftentimes the third or fourth best hitter on the team, putting up consistently above-average numbers, and providing steady defense in right field. How should that affect his legacy in pinstripes? In short, it should not. O’Neill was a model of consistency into his late 30s, and he is a stellar candidate for the Hall of Very Good. Every team with dreams of the World Series needs players of O’Neill’s caliber, and the Yankees were privileged to enjoy his late peak.
And we, as Yankees fans, were lucky to watch his short, quick, line-drive stroke in Yankee Stadium for the better part of a decade. While many remember 1994 as the closest thing to doomsday Major League Baseball has ever experienced, I will never forget watching O’Neill putting his head down and taking off down the first baseline, en route to one of the best individual Yankees seasons of my lifetime.