Your grandkids may not believe it, but there was a time when Ryan O’Hearn looked like a potential cornerstone for the next winning Royals team. No no, it’s true. He came up in 2018 and hit 12 homers in 44 games and slugged almost .600. He worked walks. He even hit two triples. But alas, that moment was fleeting. Armed with high hopes in 2019, many hid behind the cloak of bad luck for O’Hearn, but well, he wasn’t that unlucky. But still, there was hope for the still young enough first baseman heading into 2020.
You see, his new manager, Mike Matheny, had a bit of a baseball crush on O’Hearn, so you knew he was going to get his opportunities. Yes, the Royals had acquired a bit of a platoon crutch for him in Ryan McBroom, but Matheny believed in O’Hearn and as much as the bad luck talk wasn’t exactly rooted in reality, he did often hit the ball quite hard. So there was plenty of hope. And just like the hope of the short season for the Royals, it flickered away quickly.
The bad luck cries continue, and look, I get it. He does hit the ball hard quite often. His average exit velocity ranked in the 79th percentile of big leaguers. His hard hit rate was in the 77th percentile. And he doesn’t chase bad pitches very often. Combine hard hit balls with patience and the power he flashed in 2018 and it really is easy to find yourself continuing to hope that he can rediscover that magic from two seasons ago.
Instead, what we got was a .195/.303/.301 season. For a good long time, Nicky Lopez had a better isolated slugging percentage (ISO) than him. Defensive stats are iffy enough in a full season, but he had his third straight year where he was below average defensively. So let’s take a look at what really went wrong because this might be the last year in review article for the guy on this website.
For one, maybe he needed to be a bit more aggressive. He saw a lot of pitches and as was mentioned, he didn’t chase many bad ones, which is a huge positive trait, but he also struggled deep into counts. He slugged just .375 when he was ahead in the count. He hit just .176/.349/.279 when the count went three or more pitches, which is bad. Of course, he also hit just .222 with a .333 SLG when the account didn’t go three pitches, so maybe that’s not the best example.
This one is definitely an issue. He slugged .391 on fastballs. His bread and butter is supposed to be his ability to hit a fastball and he couldn’t even slug .400 on them. I honestly believe that’s a bigger issue than him hitting .048 with a .048 SLG on breaking balls. If you were wondering, back in 2018, he slugged .556 on both fastballs and breaking balls and .722 on off-speed pitches. Outside of bringing in a lefty to face him, there wasn’t much teams could do to stop O’Hearn from hitting with big power in his lone good season.
So what’s to be done with him now? It seems like the organization has moved Hunter Dozier to first base and that’ll be his full-time home, so unless a team approaches them for a Dozier move (which is unlikely after a mediocre year for Dozier), O’Hearn has no home. Can he be a lefty bat off the bench? I mean, sure? But going 0 for 9 as a pinch hitter in 2020 isn’t going to help that cause even if that’s an incredibly difficult role and nine at bats isn’t anywhere near enough to make a judgment.
I’m not sure the Royals will dump O’Hearn from their 40-man entirely as he does have options and Dozier hasn’t exactly been the picture of health throughout his young career, but I think 2020 is the last season that will begin with the team banking on O’Hearn being a cog in the offensive engine. Some might say that the Royals wasted time with him, but that’s not true at all. The last three seasons (and probably the next one at least) are about evaluating talent to determine what they have and what they don’t have. They didn’t get the answer they or anyone wanted with O’Hearn, but they did get an answer and it’s that he isn’t good enough. And that’s okay. He gave us some fun times in 2018 when there weren’t many fun times to be had, and now we know that it’s time to find out about the next guy.
I know that I’m personally looking forward to him getting signed to a minor league deal by a team like the Brewers and hitting .328/.412/.630 in like 55 games in 2026.
How would you grade Ryan O’Hearn’s 2020 season?
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