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Examining the early results on Ryan O’Hearn

He hits the ball hard and that’s interesting.

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

A few weeks ago in the twilight of July, the Royals made a rather surprising move by calling up first base prospect Ryan O’Hearn. Other than the Royals being decimated all over the roster, along with having plenty of expendable options, nothing on the surface suggested that he deserved this call up to the next level.

While the Royals have an overall lack of future major league regulars in the upper-minors, you’d figure they’d give someone like Frank Schwindel a shot before O’Hearn. None of the options for 1B/DH plate appearances at the time were thrilling, but the surface numbers spoke for themselves, as pushing a 25-year-old first baseman with an 87 wRC+ in his second season in hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League would seem ill-advised.

But here we are a month later and Ryan O’Hearn has essentially doubled his production from triple-A in 1/5 a seasons worth of major league plate appearances. The hot streak to start his career has came as a surprise to many, including myself, setting in mass confusion with how league-to-league competition works. A lot of this likely has to due with the simple way of small sample sizes deceiving us. This very well could be the best stretch of baseball O’Hearn will ever play at the major league level, while the most likely outcome for him is still probably a league-average regular that is limited to a platoon. We don’t even know when/how he’ll react to the vaunted adjustment period for rookie hitters. But yet at the same time, there have been plenty of reasons for optimism.

If there’s any hope to O’Hearn sustaining this level of success over a long period of time, it lies in his player page on Baseball Savant. He hits the ball hard, sitting at an elite level so far through 71 batted balls.

Top 20 Average Exit Velocities in 2018

Rk. Player Results Avg Exit Velocity
Rk. Player Results Avg Exit Velocity
1 Aaron Judge 238 95.8 MPH
2 Miguel Cabrera 108 94.3 MPH
3 Giancarlo Stanton 375 94.1 MPH
4 David Bote 99 94.0 MPH
5 Nelson Cruz 361 93.9 MPH
6 Joey Gallo 272 93.7 MPH
7 Matt Olson 383 93.3 MPH
8 Robinson Cano 210 93.3 MPH
9 J.D. Martinez 396 93.1 MPH
10 Matt Chapman 358 93.1 MPH
11 Ryan O'Hearn 71 93.1 MPH
12 Shohei Ohtani 183 92.9 MPH
13 Tommy Pham 316 92.9 MPH
14 Kendrys Morales 301 92.8 MPH
15 Mark Trumbo 245 92.8 MPH
16 Ryan Zimmerman 202 92.8 MPH
17 Khris Davis 368 92.7 MPH
18 Franmil Reyes 136 92.7 MPH
19 Franchy Cordero 85 92.6 MPH
20 Daniel Palka 235 92.5 MPH
Minimum 50 batted balls Baseball Savant

And before you can say that triple-S acronym, let me show evidence to support that exit velocity is a rather quickly stabilizing stat. Looking back to some Baseball Prospectus research performed back in 2016, we can see that exit velocity builds up a fair amount of reliability after 40 balls in play.

At 40-something balls in play, we can get an average exit velocity for a hitter that is fairly reliable. To put that in some context, the batting stats that have the lowest point of reliability are things like swing rate and strikeout rate, which become reliable around 50 or 60 PA. Exit velocity requires a ball in play, so 40 balls in play might take a few more PAs, but the point where it’s “not a small sample size any more” is very quick to come in the season.

So it it reasonable to expect O’Hearn to keep hitting the ball at this high quality of contact? Sure. Caveats to this being that there is still time for pitchers to adjust to him, while this does not also account for below-average contact skills.

The biggest trouble I have with analyzing O’Hearn is putting the puzzle pieces together on his impressive start at the major league level held by elite exit velocity numbers and the subpar season he was having in Omaha. Surrounding the time of his call up, it was reported that one of the main reasons O’Hearn got the call was his impressive exit velocity numbers in the minors.

In some numbers shared last month from the analytic product Synthetic Statcast, Ryan O’Hearn ranked in a tie for third on a list of players with the highest average exit velocity in the top levels of the minors.

To me, it seems unlikely that a player hitting the ball this hard, along with posting doable plate disciple skills (23.9% K%, 11.1% BB%, 11.8% SwStr%) and spray numbers that’ll make you drool (37.4% Pull, 27.1% Center, 35.5% Oppo) would be struggling so much in triple-A. While it does seem unlikely that his 87 wRC+ was a product of one big stretch of bad luck (and I’ll even say this probably isn’t the case), I’m not putting it out of the realm of possibility. Hitters that spray the ball well do not post a .286 BABIP in the Pacific Coast League. Hitters that hit the ball hard do not tend to post a 9.6 percent HR/FB while playing in one of the most home run friendly ballparks in all of the minor leagues.

It just isn’t really adding up. Coincidence or not, a lot of these BABIP and HR/FB struggles started to develop once he reached triple-A, but that would contradict the fact that the PCL is a hitter’s league.

Predicting the future for Ryan O’Hearn is hard just because of this reason. If he can sustain these exit velocity numbers with a 25-ish percent K-rate and at least a 10-ish percent BB-rate, he should comfortably sit above league-average with the bat. Time well tell to see the final verdict on this, but I’m all for taking 500 plate appearances to figure it out in 2019.