If we’re being honest, we all knew that 2018 Ryan O’Hearn wasn’t the real Ryan O’Hearn. And while 44 games is a small sample size, what he did in those games was historically great compared to other similar rookie hot streaks.
No matter how high you were on O’Hearn, 2018 was clearly an aberration. Using that same logic, one could also argue that 2019 was an aberration as well. O’Hearn followed up a wildly successful and delicious first cup of coffee with an overflowing cup of old, cold, DMV coffee.
Among batters with at least 350 plate appearances, only nine had a worse wRC+ than O’Hearn’s 69 mark. It was a far cry from his 153 mark in 2018.
He hit just 14 home runs in 370 plate appearances compared to the 12 he hit in 170 plate appearances the year before. In fact, he only finished with four more extra-base hits in 2018 than he did in 2019.
Perhaps more than any player in recent memory, we can bank on the law of averages going to work for O’Hearn this season and placing him somewhere in the middle of his 2018 and 2019 numbers. The question is which side he’ll be closer to.
He started off well enough, going 2-for-4 with a double, a walk, and two runs driven in during his 2020 debut on Monday night. But he’ll be working with another small sample size with the shortened schedule and has more competition at first this season with the right-handed Ryan McBroom over at first. If he wants to secure that starting job and a chance at becoming a full-time starter in 2021, he’ll need to see three things happen.
This sounds like a copout, but luck did factor into O’Hearn’s poor performance in 2019. It wasn’t the main culprit, but it was a factor. O’Hearn’s hard-hit percentage was actually a tick higher in 2019, and while his soft contact did increase slightly, he ranked 164 out of 241 batters with at least 350 PA.
He also had the third-highest barrel percentage on the Royals. While that’s more of an indictment on the Royals offense than an endorsement of O’Hearn, he was immediately behind both Francisco Lindor and Kris Bryant.
But perhaps the best indicator of this luck is his expected wOBA, which combined quality of contact with strikeout and walk numbers. Among 250 qualified batters, only seven saw a bigger difference between their expected wOBA and their actual wOBA than O’Hearn. When looking at expected batting average, only four guys had worse luck than O’Hearn.
O’Hearn had undeniable hard luck in 2019 and that will regress to the mean. However, some of that luck was of his own doing.
Fewer Ground Balls
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before, but there is a Royals first baseman who consistently hits the ball hard but isn’t rewarded for it because he hits it on the ground too much. For his entire career in Kansas City, Eric Hosmer’s inability to get the ball off the ground was what kept him from being a great player.
Last year, it kept O’Hearn from being at least a serviceable player, and it also gave us some insight into why his 2018 was so successful. Prior to his MLB debut in 2018, O’Hearn had hit ground balls in 44.6% of his plate appearances. During his 44 big league games that season, he hit ground balls in just 34.6% of his plate appearances. O’Hearn has always been a strong exit velocity guy, and when good exit velocity guys hit line drives and fly balls, they tend to go for doubles and home runs.
He regressed strongly in that department in 2019, hitting ground balls in 46.3% of his plate appearances. That’s nothing compared to Eric Hosmer’s career 54.4 percent mark, but it’s not good. Among first basemen and designated hitters, only six batters hit a higher percentage of ground balls.
That’s why those bad luck metrics should be taken with a grain of salt. We can’t deny bad luck, but bad luck is the cry of guys hitting singles up the middle. The Royals need Ryan O’Hearn to not be that guy.
Better Plate Discipline
Of all the differences between O’Hearn’s 2018 and 2019 season, this might be the most staggering. Pitchers threw him strikes at roughly the same pace (42.1% v. 40.3%), but he swung at pitches at a drastically different rate.
In 2019, O’Hearn swung at pitches out of the zone 7.5% more often than he did in 2018. While that’s bad on its face, it is made worse by him making contact with those pitches 13.8% more often.
The good news is that his swinging strike percentage went down while his contact percentage went up. The bad news is that is mostly due to him making contact with pitches that are out of the zone. And on those pitches, he hit .095.
Needless to say, the Royals need some offensive stability at first base. Once Hunter Dozier returns, Kansas City will have a core of seemingly okay batters at full health that they haven’t had since 2017.
Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesí, Salvador Pérez, Jorge Soler, and Dozier give their lineup some semblance of decency. However, the bottom of the order has been an absolute black hole over the past two seasons.
The Royals don’t need O’Hearn to be a world-beater for him to snag the starting job. McBroom may well be the better option, but O’Hearn will have opportunities to make that jump.