Ryan O’Hearn was really good after being called up in 2018. So good. He batted .262/.353/.597, with a 153 wRC+, and hit 12 dingers in 44 games. His Barrel Rate of 12.5% was roughly double the league average, and his average exit velocity of 91.4 mph was four ticks above the typical player’s. He also walked at an 11.8% clip, which is practically unheard of in Kansas City. It was only a couple months of play, but that’s the kind of stuff that’s easy to get excited about. Coming into 2019, there was a lot hope for O’Hearn. It looked like he could be a solid, middle-of-the-order bat for the Royals.
And then he reminded us just how difficult and frustrating and heartbreaking baseball can be.
Ryan O’Hearn had a really rough season. He batted .195/.281/.369, with a 69 wRC+, and hit 14 home runs – just two more than he did in his brief stint in the majors the prior season. Against lefties he particularly struggled, batting .170/.262/.245. Not many teams would have endured that sort of play for the bulk of a season, but the 2019 Royals were not most teams. Lacking a better alternative and perhaps seeing potential in O’Hearn, they played him in 105 games, giving him plenty of opportunity to prove that his 2018 performance was not a fluke. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so.
Despite his lackluster performance this past season, O’Hearn has a decent chance of being the Royals’ first baseman on opening day 2020. And that’s probably OK. Back in September I wrote a piece urging Royals fans not to give up on O’Hearn just yet. You should go back and read it for the full effect, but in a nutshell, I highlighted two important things that O’Hearn does really well; he hits the ball hard and he takes a lot of walks.
His average exit velocity of 90.5 was three mph above league average, putting him in the top 100 in all of baseball. His walk rate of 10.5% was two percent above league average and second only to Jorge Soler’s among Royals regulars. Clearly those two things alone aren’t enough, otherwise O’Hearn would have had a better 2019. But they’re not nothing. There’s still reason to dream on him being a productive big-league hitter, though his opportunities to prove it are surely dwindling in number.
If he’s going to become a productive hitter, he’ll need to find a way to start driving the ball. His ground ball rate of 46.3% isn’t pretty. But when combined with his infield hit rate of 3.7%, it becomes thoroughly grotesque. When Ryan O’Hearn made contact in 2019, he hit a ground ball nearly half of the time, yet only got four infield hits all year. Not all grounders stay in the infield, of course, particularly when they’re hit as hard as O’Hearn hits them. But to have hit that many ground balls and to only have come up with four infield hits? Woof. It’s no wonder he struggled.
But if you’re in search of a ray of hope for O’Hearn, look no further than his last month or so of play. In an interview by Jordan Foote over at Kings of Kauffman, O’Hearn pointed to the Cleveland series at the end of August as a turning point. Indeed, from that series until the end of the season, he hit .275/.359/.600, good for a 144 wRC+. He hit 7 of his 14 home runs during that time, and his line drive rate was a healthy 27.3% -- 10 points above his rate for the season. Those line drives came almost completely at the expense of his ground ball rate, which was a more palatable 38.2%. There’s danger in drawing conclusions from a month of baseball, of course, but those are all really positive signs.
The Royals could always decide that they’ve seen enough of O’Hearn and go a different direction this offseason. Ryan McBroom exists. Hunter Dozier could move across the diamond. Lucas Duda is out there just wasting away, and you know it has to be driving Dayton Moore crazy. But assuming they stick with O’Hearn, the first month or two of 2020 will be absolutely pivotal for him. If he can pick up where he left off, he could be the first baseman of the future in Kansas City. If not, he might find himself out of chances. Baseball is cruel and really, really hard, and the opportunities are so very limited in number. I like Ryan O’Hearn a lot and hope he’s able to put it together. But there’s no doubt, his 2019 season was a rough one.
How would you grade Ryan O’Hearn’s season?
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