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Ryan O’Hearn doesn’t need a demotion, yet

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The Royals first baseman is in a bit of a sophomore slump, but this is nothing to be concerned with just yet.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Ryan O’Hearn made a joke of big league pitching during his rookie campaign in 2018. The lefty posted a 153 wRC+ in 170 PA over 44 games, crushing 12 HR and giving Royals fans something to look forward to moving into 2019.

O’Hearn hasn’t quite lived up to those standards in 2019. The lefties slash line currently sits at a measly .161/.282/.322/.603 and he’s currently in the middle of his longest homer-less streak of his career at nine games. On the surface, that may sound bad. But if you dig a little deeper (and I mean just a little, this doesn’t take much), O’Hearn really hasn’t been that bad at all. Let’s take a quick look at some of his peripheral metrics in 2019 vs 2018, and see if we can’t make sense of these struggles.

K%

2018: 26.5%
2019: 24.3%

BB%

2018: 11.8%
2019: 13.6%

BB/K

2018: 0.44
2019: 0.56

SwStr%

2018: 12.3%
2019: 9.9%

Contact%

2018: 70.5%
2019: 73.6%

Swing%

2018: 41.8%
2019: 37.7%

Zone%

2018: 42.1%
2019: 37.4%

GB%

2018: 34.6%
2019: 49.2%

Hard Hit %

2018: 44.2%
2019: 52.4%

BABIP

2018: .293
2019: .183

Here’s a basic summary of what the numbers above tell us about Ryan O’Hearn:

He is striking out less and walking more than he did in 2018. He is swinging and missing less frequently, thus making more contact than in 2018. He is swinging the bat a little less often but he is also seeing fewer pitches inside the strike zone. He is hitting the ball hard more often than in 2018, as well as hitting it harder on average, but he’s also hitting the ball on the ground more often.

This sounds to me like Ryan O’Hearns problems are fairly simple. Hit the ball in the air more, hit the ball on the ground less, and he’s going to be just fine. Not that actually hitting the ball in the air with regularity is simple, I just don’t think there are a ton of problems with his game right now. We can really narrow it down to one thing, and that’s the ground ball rate.

So, why is he hitting the ball on the ground so much? For starters. pitchers have pretty well decided to stop throwing him pitches inside:

O’Hearn heat map 2018
O’Hearn heat map 2019

As you can see, pitchers have tried to totally stay away from O’Hearn in 2019, and for good reason, here’s a map of all the fly balls and line drives that O’Hearn has hit in 2019:

O’Hearn fly ball heat map

And a map of where his three HR pitches have been located:

O’Hearn HR heat map

The question now seems pretty simple: “Can Ryan O’Hearn adjust to pitches away from him in the strike zone?”

Ryan O’Hearn’s 2018 stint with Kansas City was absolutely incredible. It was one of the best performances we’d ever seen from a Royals rookie and it may have given Royals fans too high of expectations moving into 2019. O’Hearn was never going to post a 150+ wRC+ over the course of an entire season. Only five qualified hitters in all of Major League Baseball did that last year. That doesn’t mean he still can’t be a very serviceable, high OBP, power hitter in the middle of the Royals lineup.

It’s possible that O’Hearn struggles to handle pitches away from him drag on into the summer. If we’re sitting here on June 1 having this same conversation, then maybe he’d need a stint in AAA to work some things out. But right now, with as good as O’Hearn’s peripherals look, he ought to be given ample opportunity to work through this slump in the big leagues. ESPECIALLY considering the Royals alternatives at first base.