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Ryan O’Hearn and the quest for power

With roster decisions looming, it’s long past time for the Royals first baseman to rediscover the thunder that’s been missing from his bat.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With a stagnant offense, the Royals needed something to shock a little life into the bats on Tuesday against the Detroit Tigers. Lifeless for six innings, Ryan O’Hearn provided the spark in a come from behind win, crushing a 1-2 belt-high cutter off the top of an advertising board in the right field fountain.

It was a moment that manager Ned Yost hopes can propel the first baseman going forward. “It was big for him to give him a little confidence, but even a little more of a confidence boost coming off a lefty,” Yost said.

Lord knows, O’Hearn could use the confidence boost.

A corner infield roster crunch is coming. Hunter Dozier is eligible to come off the IL. Lucas Duda is on a rehab assignment in Omaha. Cheslor Cuthbert is hitting well and out of options. Add Kelvin Guttierez into the mix and soon there won’t be enough plate appearances to go around. If O’Hearn is ever going to get hot—or even lukewarm—it would behoove him to start now.

In 44 games at the end of last year, Ryan O’Hearn was drunk on ISO. In 170 plate appearances he clubbed 12 home runs to go along with 10 doubles. Hell, he even added a pair of triples for good measure. Toss all those extra bases in a blender and it comes out to total a .338 ISO that, had we not been witnesses, would have beggared belief. (For the sake of reference Mike Trout—who else?—led all of major league baseball last summer with a .316 ISO. The only other player to top a .300 ISO was Khris Davis at .302.) It was a stellar rookie campaign for the Royals’ eighth round draft choice out of Sam Houston State in 2014.

Regression was always in the cards. There was no way O’Hearn could maintain his torrid start. But who saw these extended struggles coming? And to this degree?

Entering play Tuesday, O’Hearn was batting .185/.288/.320 with a 64 wRC+ and a .135 ISO.

What’s going on?

Let’s open with the positives. (Really!) O’Hearn’s walk and strikeout profile so far in 2019 mirrors what we saw in his cup of coffee at the end of last season. He’s walking around 12 percent of the time, which is slightly up from last year. He’s striking out a little over 25 percent of his plate appearances, which is slightly down. Both those numbers are acceptable based on his profile and minor league track record.

That’s the good. Now for... the rest.

Despite his walk and strikeout rates largely holding steady, O’Hearn has been expanding his zone this year. His chase rate though 205 plate appearances is 29 percent. That’s good enough to reside below league average, yet it’s an increase of nearly six percent from last year.

The issue isn’t necessarily about O’Hearn expanding the zone. It’s about what happens when he makes contact on those pitches outside of the zone. And he’s making a lot more of that kind of contact. According to plate discipline metrics at FanGraphs, O’Hearn made contact on swings at pitches out of the zone at a rate of almost 48 percent last year. In 2019, that number has ballooned to above 60 percent.

Statcast breaks the raw contact down by zone. On the left is O’Hearn’s contact totals from last year. This season is on the right. In 2018 he made contact on 104 balls and is currently at 127 batted balls this year, so the raw numbers from one year to the next are fairly close in total.

Ryan O’Hearn batted balls by zone (2018 & 2019)

Last year, he was making a meal out of pitches in the middle of the zone. This season, he’s making more contact on pitches generally down in the zone and away.

That’s not the contact profile O’Hearn desires. When he chases and makes contact on pitches low and out of the zone, it’s likely going on the ground. He’s also vengeful against worms on most of those pitches he sees in the zone that are on the outer third. He’s turned into something of a ground ball machine.

O’Hearn GB% by zone - 2019

The overall result is a nearly 14 percent increase in ground ball rate over last year. Currently at 48 percent, O’Hearn owns the 33rd highest ground ball rate in the league, and leads the Royals in that category. It’s not the ideal contact profile for a hitter with O’Hearn’s power potential.

Likewise, it’s troubling at his inability thus far to do damage on pitches down the pipe. While he’s hitting .333 on stuff middle-middle, he’s slugging just .352 on those pitches. That’s a year after doing damage to the tune of an .889 SLG. His ISO on center-cut pitches this year is a meager .071. It’s been rough.

Prior to the home run he hit Tuesday, O’Hearn had an earlier plate appearance that serves as a microcosm for what’s going wrong this season for pitches in the zone. Against Detroit starter Spencer Turnbull in the fourth, O’Hearn got a center-cut, first pitch fastball.

O’Hearn vs Turnbull - 5th inning

A tasty morsel of a pitch that he rolled over and hit on the ground to the right side of the infield. Revisiting the ground ball by zone chart above, he’s doing that on that particular pitch location 44 percent of the time.

Again, it’s not surprising that O’Hearn fell off the pace he set at the end of last season. What is surprising is the completeness of the fall.

O’Hearn Statcast Numbers

Year Batted Balls Barrels Barrel% Exit Velo Launch Angle
Year Batted Balls Barrels Barrel% Exit Velo Launch Angle
2018 104 13 12.5% 91.4 17.7
2019 127 9 7.1 90.5 13.0

He’s barreling fewer balls, hitting more on the ground and in general making less hard contact. It’s not surprising his power is down.

O’Hearn Expected Values

2018 0.597 0.467 0.398 0.345
2019 0.320 0.348 0.271 0.291

O’Hearn isn’t hitting into bad luck. He’s just not hitting at all. Maybe his Tuesday home run versus the lefty (and the infield hit that followed against the shift in his next PA) can spark some life into his bat. But there’s no easy fix here. However he does it, it’s up to O’Hearn to start making better contact and soon. He’s running out of time.