Paul O’Neill established himself as a certified Yankees stud in 1994.
Kelly had become an All-Star talent on a bad team, but hadn’t quite lived up to his prospect promise. O’Neill, while an All-Star himself in 1991 after smacking 28 homers, didn’t hit for a particularly high average or stand out in the ways he wanted to. In fact, he was better known for kicking a baseball to Todd Benzinger at first base.
So, the two sides made a pertinent swap, which immediately paid off. In ’93, O’Neill raised his average to .311, performing well for a burgeoning Yankees team. Kelly was an All-Star once again, hitting .319 in a season shortened by injury. So far, so good!
But in ’94, O’Neill left Kelly in the dust with some never-before-seen numbers that still stun today, and the entire narrative flipped forever.
O’Neill started the train rolling with a red-hot April, finishing over .400 and starting a year-long narrative that would only be halted by the disastrous work stoppage that followed.
In fact, O’Neill kept the pace going through the Yankees’ first 60 games that season, setting up a small-sample-size season that got plenty of keyboards clicking in anticipation of 2020 — he hit .417, the highest mark ever for a batting title-eligible player with the requisite number of at-bats.
Overall, O’Neill finished with a mind-bending .359 average, but more importantly perhaps a .460 OBP, which flipped his scouting report entirely. The blustery right fielder wasn’t simply hitting for power (21 homers in 103 games, for what it’s worth); he was also getting on base near-constantly.
Somehow, all this was only good for a fifth-place finish in the MVP race, behind Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton (the WAR lines up, we promise).
Following this campaign, the Yankees and O’Neill seemed to agree they’d tripped into a match made in heaven. The sides mutually agreed on a long-term-ish deal: the still-cheap four-year, $19 million pact.
After the ink was dry, O’Neill’s agent Joe Bick leaked the terms to The New York Times.
"“Paul loves playing in New York,” Bick told The Times. “The last two years have turned out to be a great experience for him. He said, ‘If we can get a deal worked out with the Yankees and it’s a reasonable deal, I’m not afraid to sign a contract without going out on the market.’ “"
Even that attempted “cash in” was a steal for New York, and O’Neill went on to prove he was a completely different player in the Boogie Down than he’d been in the Queen City. 1994 changed everything — we just wish he’d been able to finish it on his own terms.