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Ryan O’Hearn: Not as unlucky as people think

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Yep, he hit a lot of balls hard in 2019, but the narrative that he was purely unlucky probably doesn’t ring true.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals
Sep 3, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Ryan O’Hearn (66) rounds the bases after hitting a walk off home run against the Detroit Tigers during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative for much of the 2019 season was that Ryan O’Hearn was a victim of bad luck. And that narrative was one of the few things that social media, the Royals and the Royals broadcast agreed on throughout the season. What if everyone was wrong? Spoiler alert: I think they were.

Mike Matheny talked during the winter meetings this week and Alec Lewis wrote about some of the things he said in his column in The Athletic (legal note to say subscription is required) regarding faith in young players, specifically O’Hearn, and this quote stood out to me:

“We don’t look away from things that guys can control, which (in O’Hearn’s case) is hard hit rate.”

O’Hearn does absolutely hit the ball hard. According to the amazing Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity of 90.5 MPH was well above the league average of 87.5 MPH. His hard-hit rate of 43.7 percent was well above the league average of 34.5 percent. So far, so good. Out of 478 hitters, O’Hearn’s exit velocity ranked as 83rd best. That’s fantastic! And out of those hitters, his hard-hit rate was 78th. Even better! A lot of the narrative surrounding O’Hearn was that many of the balls he hit hard (and if you’ve forgotten, that means batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 MPH+) were actually outs.

Ryan O’Hearn’s Average by Exit Velocity

Exit Velocity O’Hearn AVG League AVG
Exit Velocity O’Hearn AVG League AVG
<95 .155 .223
95-99 .094 .389
100-104 .514 .576
105+ .857 .712

So I’ll give you that he was unlucky compared to league average on balls hit less than 95 MPH and really between 95 and 99 MPH since we’re talking about the hard-hit ones. He had 32 such batted balls and just three hits. To get him around league average, he’d need to get nine more hits. They’d probably be mostly singles, but let’s call it seven singles and two doubles since most home runs aren’t in this exit velocity chunk. On the 100-104 category, he’s within a pretty reasonable margin for error, but let’s give him two more hits to get to a 20 for 35 line instead of 18 for 35. And let’s give him a single and a home run. He was 18 for 21 on balls hit 105 MPH or harder. But fair is fair and if we’re giving out free hits for underperforming, he has to lose three for overperforming. Let’s take away a single, double and home run just for fun.

Obviously you can’t just do that, but let’s put these numbers in the ol’ abacus and see what his line would be if you adjust his “luck” on hard hit balls. We’ve added eight hits to his totals. His .195/.281/.369 line skyrockets to .216/.300/.393. Even if you fudge around with the hits and give him an extra double or two, it doesn’t make it passable. So yeah, that’s still not good. That alone shows that, yes, he was unlucky, but not unlucky enough to think it completely flipped his season as the narrative often suggests.

Which shows that hitting the ball hard isn’t the only part of the equation a hitter can control and has to worry about. Let’s go to the leaderboards!

Everyone knows hitting the ball on the sweet spot is incredibly important. It’s one of the first things a coach talks about even way back in little league. In fact, it’s one of the few things little league coaches seemingly get right (seriously, put your back elbow down). A ball is considered to be hit on the sweet spot when it has a launch angle between 8° and 32°. It’s not a perfect metric because you can hit the ball softly at those angles, but it’s a start.

O’Hearn had a sweet spot percentage of just 29.9 percent, which ranked 375th in baseball. Yeesh. When he did square it up, he hit .552 compared to the league average of .610. So again, slightly unlucky. Now, as I mentioned, not all sweet spot hits are actually hard hit. When O’Hearn hit the ball on the sweet spot and had a 95 MPH+ exit velo, he hit .738 compared to the league average of .721.

Now let’s look at barrels, which is sort of what the sweet spot combined with hard hit does, but it’s quantified on Baseball Savant. A barrel is classified as a batted ball event whose comparable hit types have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. O’Hearn barreled the ball in just 5.7 percent of his plate appearances, which ranked 163rd in baseball. The ranking actually isn’t horrendous, but for a guy who derives value from his bat and basically only his bat, he needs to not be hanging out around guys like Harrison Bader, Chad Pinder and Austin Slater. Though if you do look down the list, behind him you see Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Manny Machado, Justin Turner and Trevor Story within a few spots. If you look at barrels per batted ball event rather than overall plate appearances, he actually fares better at 9.1 percent, which ranks 140th.

And finally, let’s look at the factor O’Hearn mostly can’t control - shifts. In 2018, he was shifted on in just 16.5 percent of his plate appearances. In 2019, that jumped to 48.5 percent. Why? Well, he hit the ball on the ground more. He hit 60 balls to the right side of second base in 2019, up from 21 in 2018. He only came to the plate about twice as much and hit three times as many grounders to the right side. This is largely anecdotal, but he seemed to roll over the outside pitch a lot more in 2019 when he would take it to left with authority in 2018. He’s one of the few power hitters who actually doesn’t benefit from the turn and burn approach because he is so powerful the other way.

So what does this all mean? Well for one, you probably guessed from the headline and the entire article up to this point that O’Hearn wasn’t that unlucky. But that doesn’t mean I think there’s no hope. I’m not terribly optimistic, but there is absolutely hope. Looking back at that sweet spot percentage, while he didn’t hit the ball in that launch angle range nearly enough, when he did, he mostly hit it hard. In fact, 42 of his 67 (62.7%) balls hit on the sweet spot were hit at 95 MPH+ and 32 (47.8%) were hit 100 MPH+. The league average percentages on those were 51.3 percent and 32.7 percent respectively. So when he is hitting the ball at the launch angle he should be, he’s hitting it hard way more often than most and producing in those situations.

My gut here is that he’s not good enough to be a big leaguer on a good team. Yes, he was fantastic in the last two months of 2018, but he’s also a player who was barely passable at AAA in his second shot at the level in 2018. They loved his minor league exit velocity numbers and thought that showed he could be someone who could make the jump, but more often than not over the last three years, he’s been a mediocre at best hitter, especially for a first baseman. Maybe some of the actual bad luck he hit into early in the year got into his head. His O-swing% went from 25.2 percent through April to 32.8 percent the rest of the season. Maybe if he can avoid that in 2020, he can turn in a solid season.

I went into writing this thinking he was probably a lost cause and while it was fine to give him another shot in 2020, I didn’t think it would matter. Now, I still generally believe that will end up as the case, but maybe see if he can get back to driving the ball to left to undermine the shift and work on getting that sweet spot percentage up with the hard hit rate on them staying close the same. Maybe he can get closer to 2018 than 2019 and be a solid lefty bat on the club moving forward. It doesn’t hurt to find out in what looks like another year of evaluation for the Royals.

Poll

How would you handle first base for the Royals in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Give O’Hearn another year
    (149 votes)
  • 43%
    Platoon O’Hearn with McBroom/Salvy/Random FA
    (205 votes)
  • 18%
    Move on from O’Hearn
    (86 votes)
  • 5%
    Trade Whit Merrifield for Eric Hosmer
    (26 votes)
466 votes total Vote Now