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Let’s not give up on Ryan O’Hearn just yet

Despite a rough season, I’m still a believer

Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

In case you’ve forgotten, Ryan O’Hearn was fantastic last year. We’re only talking about two months and 170 plate attempts with the big club at the end of the season, of course, but a triple slash of .262/.353/.597 will play in any sample size – especially when it’s backed by an average exit velocity of 91.4 mph and a barrel rate of 12.5%.

I don’t think many expected him to replicate his 153 wRC+ over the course of an entire season, and there was evidence that regression would come. But after that kind of start, it was hard to imagine him fizzling out completely. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened to O’Hearn in a miserable 2019 season.

It has been a very disappointing season for Ryan O’Hearn, for sure. He’s currently batting .192/.281/.368, good for a 68 wRC+. For a below-average defender playing full time at an infield corner, that will not suffice. He’s had plenty of opportunities this year to prove his worth, too, and has failed to do so. Still, I’m not ready to give up on him just yet. He does a lot of things right at the plate – enough to warrant some patience on the part of the Royals, I think. He’s doing a lot of things wrong too, of course, and he may never figure it all out. But there’s no denying his potential. First let’s look at what’s gone wrong for O’Hearn.

He can’t hit lefties

It’s true, unfortunately, that O’Hearn hasn’t had much success against left-handed pitching, though the Royals have limited his exposure to southpaws somewhat this season. In only 58 plate attempts, he’s batting .140/.241/.200 against lefties compared to .201/.290/.398 against righties in 302 PAs. That line against left-handed pitching is pretty bleak, but it’s not as if he’s mashing righties either. Those 58 plate attempts against lefties are a problem, of course, but they’re not the problem. There’s a whole lot more going on than a simple platoon weakness.

He hits too many ground balls

Anyone who has followed the Royals closely this season probably knows that Ryan O’Hearn has a high ground ball rate. Along with “bad luck,” it’s the most-often cited explanation for his struggles. While I’m not convinced he’s been all that unlucky, he has definitely been hurt by grounders. His 47.6% grounder rate puts him in the 80th percentile of the league this season and is well above his career rate of 43.5%. Players like Lorenzo Cain, whose career ground ball rate is 48.5%, make a living off of legging out grounders to the left side of the infield. But for a player like O’Hearn’s, a left-handed pull hitter with average speed, grounders are not a good way to go. Especially when an infield shift is on.

Shifts are killing him

O’Hearn experiences an infield shift in about half of his plate attempts, which really isn’t that much for a left-handed hitter (Joey Gallo sees a shift nearly 96% of the time), but it’s above league average for lefties – and much higher than the 16.5% shift rate he saw in his 170 plate attempts last year. It’s effective, too. When the shift is on, his wOBA drops nearly 70 points, from .315 to .246.

To see how this plays out, take a look at the spray charts below. The one on the left represents where his base hits have fallen. He has more hits to the pull side, but the distribution is fairly even. In reality, he pulls the ball 42% of the time; he just doesn’t get nearly as many hits when he does. That has a lot to do with the type of contact that he makes when he does pull the ball. Look at that huge cluster of peachy-pink dots between first and second on the spray chart to the right. Those are mostly grounders that have been scooped up by the shift. This is not what you want to see.

Ryan O’Hearn 2019 Spray Charts

OK, so we’ve established that he hits too many grounders, he’s getting killed by the shift and he has no business hitting against left-handed pitching. That’s not a good profile at all. But he does two really important things very well, and because of those two things, I’m still a Ryan O’Hearn believer.

He hits the ball really hard and he takes a lot of walks

Hitting the ball really hard and taking a lot of walks doesn’t guarantee success, but players who excel at those two things do tend to be pretty darn good. And Ryan O’Hearn is good at both of those things.

His average exit velocity of 90.5 mph is in the 80th percentile and his walk rate of 11% is in the 75th. Each of those things is difficult to do on its own. But in tandem, that combination of skills is as rare as it is beautiful. He’s one of only 22 players in all of baseball who have an average exit velocity of 90.5 mph or better and a walk rate of at least 11%. O’Hearn is the only player on the list with a wRC+ below 110. He’s not having much success because of the type of contact he’s making, but his peers in this group are killing it.

Slamming the ball into the ground – no matter how hard – isn’t a recipe for success, just as a high walk rate isn’t worth much when it’s accompanied by a sub-.200 batting average. O’Hearn’s contact profile needs to change if he’s going to stick on a major league roster, plain and simple. But the fact that he’s squaring up so many balls and has such a good eye at the plate is promising to say the least. If he could turn a few of those grounders into line drives or fly balls he could be a solid hitter.

That’s easier said than done, of course, and there’s always a chance he never figures it out. As it turns out, playing professional baseball is really hard. For a while now, I’ve been waiting to write a “Ryan O’Hearn has turned the corner” article, but the season is all but over and he just hasn’t turned any corners. He’s truly been a model of consistency in his badness. But he does enough things right at the plate, and he seems so very close to figuring it all out, that it hasn’t bothered me at all seeing him in the lineup game after game. In fact, I look forward to seeing him in the lineup again next year. Despite his abysmal season, he deserves a longer look.