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Ryan O’Hearn’s unprecedented, yet unsurprising power

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Nobody expected these results, but O’Hearn didn’t come out of nowhere

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

38 games is not a lot of games. Through 38 games, the 2009 Royals and 2011 Royals were 20-18. On the other side of the coin, the 2014 American League Champion Royals were 19-19 through 38 games.

The 38 games played by Ryan O’Hearn at the Major League level is just a blip on the radar. Even as a 25-year-old just getting his first taste of Major League action, 38 games still represents just 6% of his 619 professional baseball games.

It is the other 94% that makes his brief Major League career less stunning than it seems.

Entering tonight’s action, O’Hearn has 11 home runs, a 168 wRC+ and a .632 SLG%. Among rookies with at least 140 plate appearances since 1871, that .632 mark is good for the 7th highest all-time. For reference, in the 229 plate appearances in 2016 when he burst onto the scene, Gary Sanchez had a .657 SLG%.

Throw out the lack of sample size. What O’Hearn is doing from a power standpoint has rarely been seen by a rookie in baseball history and Royals fans have certainly never seen anything like it from a rookie of their own.

Matt Olson is the only rookie ever with at least 140 plate appearances to post an ISO higher than O’Hearn’s .360. That’s not to mention that O’Hearn will likely join George Brett as the only other Royal with at least 100 plate appearances to slug above .600.

Just for funsies, just who holds the highest SLG% in Royals history with zero minimum plate appearances, you ask? Zack Greinke and his 2.000 mark back in 2005. One hit, one dinger. Now, back to O’Hearn.

This is unprecedented power and with anything unprecedented comes a bit of skepticism. Rany Jazayerli of The Athletic was one of many who is befuddled by O’Hearn’s success.

Now, I’m not here to rip into Rany or even poke holes in his argument. I don’t think that O’Hearn is a product of the swing-plane revolution, simply because the Royals don’t teach it. The numbers also don’t support this narrative, as O’Hearn’s 16-degree average launch angle is good for 83rd in baseball for hitters with at least 80 batted ball events (BBE), below the likes of Whit Merrifield and Steven Souza Jr.

Notwithstanding, I take more issue with the first part of the tweet. That is, the idea that O’Hearn is a fluke. To an extent, in a very practical sense, he is almost certainly a fluke. If he isn’t, he will be a Hall of Famer and go down as the ~3rd best hitter in baseball history according to wRC+. These things are always fluky.

The question isn’t whether these 38 games are a fluke in and of themselves, but is more about whether O’Hearn himself is a fluke. Rany went on to reiterate this in another tweet.

Now, again, this isn’t really wrong and I’m not trying to bash Rany. Nobody expected O’Hearn to have a .632 SLG% through 38 games with a .360 ISO and we are all scrambling to figure out what the heck happened.

However, pointing to his slash from Omaha prior to being called up would lead readers to believe that O’Hearn has always been that type of hitter, which is simply not the case. He has a below average hit tool and it may very well stay that way, but the power tool has always been there.

What he did at AAA this season just wasn’t the Ryan O’Hearn we have seen in the past and we shouldn’t suggest that it was. After hitting 11 homers in three seasons at Sam Houston State, O’Hearn hit 13 in 64 games during his first professional stop at the Rookie Ball level in 2014. He responded by hitting 27 more home runs in 2015 and 22 more in each of the 2016 and 2017 seasons across A+, AA, and AAA.

The power had been there from the start and hadn’t regressed until this summer in Omaha.

So, while nobody should expect O’Hearn to continue laying waste to Major League pitching as he has done this past month and a half, we shouldn’t be surprised that he is knocking the crap out of the ball. This is the same guy that had never posted a full-season ISO below .200 before this season at AAA. And if you combine his AAA and MLB stats from this season, the streak continues.

Eric Hosmer posted an ISO north of .200 all of one time in his minor league career and he has never done it at the Major League level. He’s never really even been close. And at this point, it looks like O’Hearn’s minor league success and early MLB success is in part due to him figuring out what Hosmer never could. He is hitting the ball hard and hitting it in the air.

While his 16-degree launch angle isn’t among the league leaders, he is doing that with a 92.2 MPH average exit velocity, good for 21st in the league. He’s barreling the ball in 47% of his BBE. Now compare that with Hosmer’s near identical 91.7 MPH exit velo in 2016 that was 22nd in the league. During that season, Hosmer barreled the ball similarly to O’Hearn (44%) and was close in barrels per plate appearance percentage (6.7 to 7.6). The difference was that he had a 3.6-degree launch angle.

I am not saying that Ryan O’Hearn is better than or will be better than Eric Hosmer. That’s not the point. I am saying that O’Hearn is doing the one thing that Hosmer couldn’t and he is hitting the ball just as hard. And we shouldn’t be all that surprised because hitting home runs is the one thing he hasn’t stopped doing since he turned pro.