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The legend of Peter O'Brien

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The kid can hit it a long way, but is he big league material?

Kansas City Royals Photo Day Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

Peter O’Brien can hit a baseball 450 feet. Peter O’Brien once hit a ball that cleared the 30 foot batter’s eye at Maryvale Park in Arizona. Peter O’Brien once hit a ball so hard, it went through time. Peter O’Brien’s tears can cure cancer, it is just a shame he has never cried.

TO PETER O’BRIEN, MAYOR OF DONGTOWN!

Peter O’Brien has become something of a modern day legend in spring training with the Royals due to his prodigious power. Alex Gordon recently told Rustin Dodd, "I’m not in his BP, because he makes me feel like a high school kid.’"

O’Brien has long been known for his tape-measure moonshots. Last year in camp with the Diamondbacks, he hit one out of the stadium during a spring training game. His first home run in a Major League game was a 471-foot blast to center field off Houston’s Dallas Keuchel.

O’Brien is the guy you want to get to the ballpark early and watch take batting practice. So why is he a 26-year old with just 79 plate appearances in the Major Leagues?

Peter O’Brien didn’t attract much attention out of high school in the Miami area, so he went to small Bethune-Cookman, a Historically Black University in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. He smashed 20 home runs his sophomore season, hitting .386, and after his junior year he was selected in the third round by the Colorado Rockies.

He turned them down to transfer to his hometown Miami Hurricanes, where he hit .340 with a team-high ten home runs as their starting catcher in 2012. That summer, he was selected in the second round by the New York Yankees. O’Brien smashed 10 home runs in 52 games his first pro-season, but hit just .212 and struck out 27% of the time. The strikeouts continued the next year, but he hit .291 with 22 home runs.

O’Brien’s breakout season was in 2014. He destroyed the Florida State League with 10 home runs in 30 games before being promoted to AA Trenton. He ended the season with 34 home runs, and the third-highest ISO in all of minor league baseball, behind only Joey Gallo and Kris Bryant. He was able to cut down on his strikeouts, but he didn’t walk much either. That summer he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for veteran infielder Martin Prado.

O’Brien socked 50 more home runs for AAA Reno across the 2015 and 2016 seasons, albeit in a friendly hitting environment. He made his Major League debut in 2015 with a cup of coffee with the Diamondbacks, then was up again in September of 2016. In 76 Major League plate appearances, he has hit just .179/.228/.446 with six home runs.

His defense behind the plate had always been an issue, particularly his throwing arm, but O’Brien reportedly irritated Diamondbacks management when he no longer wanted to play catcher. The Diamondbacks also reportedly had O’Brien off-limits in the 2016 season when the Royals and Mariners inquired about him, which made it curious when they designated him for assignment that winter.

It seems clear two things are holding O’Brien back - his plate discipline and his defense. O’Brien had a walk rate of just 5.9% in his career, a rate that makes Whit Merrifield look like Rickey Henderson. While Whit may need to slap at the ball to put it in play, O’Brien’s low walk rate is even more puzzling considering that minor league pitchers should be looking to avoid him, giving him few good pitches to hit.

O’Brien did finally get out from behind the plate - he caught just 11 games in 2015, and none last year. He played outfield for the Diamondbacks, and while we only have a small sample (122 innings), he did not perform well. He is not a fat guy with no athleticism, so perhaps he can improve in the outfield with more reps. But most likely he will have to settle in at first base, likely having to DH a lot.

So he profiles as a 26-year old career minor leaguer with prodigious power, big whiff rates, and poor defense. Who does that remind you of?

Ah, the mustached-one! "Bye Bye" Balboni also began in the Yankees system, hitting 92 home runs in three seasons for their top AAA affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. In 1984, the Royals acquired him and pitcher Roger Erickson from the Yankees for pitcher Mike Armstrong and catcher Duane Dewey. That season he put up a 2.1 WAR season with a team-high 28 home runs, and the next year he set the Royals franchise record for home runs in a season with 36.

Let's compare how the Great Balboni fared next to Peter O'Brien in the three minor league seasons before the Royals acquired them.

PA AVG OBA SLG HR% BB% K%
Steve Balboni 1235 .229 .354 .580 5.0 11.4 24.7
Peter O'Brien 1395 .251 .315 .550 6.0 5.4 27.3

So yea, O'Brien really doesn't walk. He swings at everything. And at the Major League level, where pitchers paint the corners, hit triple digits on the gun, and dazzle with ungodly breaking pitches, that can be a big problem.

With Brandon Moss entrenched at DH, no room in the outfield or at first base, and a roster logjam for out-of-options players like Cheslor Cuthbert and Christian Colón, there is pretty much no chance O'Brien can make the Opening Day squad. But that doesn't mean O'Brien can't be a useful player for the Royals this season. Good power can be an asset if used correctly.

If nothing more, he's a fun player to watch, and an easy guy to root for.