This week in Hok Talk, we talk about Ryan O’Hearn’s drastic changes and why he might be on the verge of justifying the many chances the Royals have given him.
It’s no secret that the Royals have struggled this year. While the pitchers have struggled plenty at times, the struggles of the hitters have been more consistently noticeable. Throughout the year, fans have called for the release or demotion of just about every hitter in the Royals lineup, except for Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield, and Nicky Lopez. And it’s not like the production didn’t deserve the criticism.
However, when struggles go on for too long, it can be easy to fail to notice when success finally comes. Especially when that success takes an unfamiliar form. Enter Ryan O’Hearn.
Most of us are familiar with his story at this point, but to quickly catch everyone else up: O’Hearn burst onto the scene after earning an unexpected promotion in 2018. He banged out 12 home runs in the final 44 games to close out his age-24 season, and it looked like the Royals might have had an unexpected star on their hands. His 2019 season was, however, a massive disappointment. Everyone hoping for a rebound in 2020 was similarly disappointed. He could take a walk and always hit the ball hard, but all of his batted balls seemed to either land in the seats or gloves, and not nearly enough of the former occurred to counter the latter. One of those things has drastically changed this season.
Ryan O’Hearn is no longer taking walks.
Coming into 2021, O’Hearn had a walk rate of 11.5%, easily enough to lead the team over the past three years. Unfortunately, with a batting average of .195 in both 2019 and 2020, it wasn’t enough to make him a productive big leaguer. This is especially true because he was a slow runner and was not a particularly well-regarded fielder at first base. Before Tuesday night’s action, however, O’Hearn had a measly walk rate of 3.8% in 2021. He went from leading the team to walking less often than anyone except noted free-swingers Salvador Perez, Adalberto Mondesi, and Hanser Alberto.
But here’s the weird part... it might actually be working.
The first thing to note is that this appears to be an intentional change on O’Hearn’s part. His walk rate didn’t just go down with no explanation; his entire swing profile has dramatically altered.
As you can see in the above image of a table from FanGraphs, O’Hearn has increased his swing rate by nearly 10% over what he was doing before. This has come equally on pitches outside the zone and inside of it. He’s not hitting pitches he swings at anymore often, but hitting the ball on the same percentage of swings with more swings equals more batted balls.
He has also adjusted somehow to hit fewer balls on the ground than ever. If there is one thing we have learned from Eric Hosmer and Kelvin Gutierrez, hitting the ball on the ground consistently, no matter how hard, is a fool’s game. O’Hearn has dropped his groundball percentage down to 37% after spending the last two seasons hitting nearly half of his batted balls on the ground. Combined with his newfound aggression and he has replaced many of his walks with hits. Walks are great, but hits are noted for offering the possibility of earning more than one base at a time.
Interestingly, his swing looks pretty similar to last year, though there is one notable difference. The following videos show drastically different results in similar pitches in similar locations, the first from early 2020 and the other from Monday night’s game.
As you can see, his stance is a bit more open in the more recent clip. It seems that allows him to avoid turning over on pitches as much.
His approach at the plate isn’t the only thing that’s changed, either. He has, inexplicably, become a significantly faster baserunner. No one will confuse him with Rickey Henderson anytime soon, but his sprint speed increased almost two feet per second over 2020, taking him from the bottom third to the top quarter of runners in the league.
The final massive change for O’Hearn is a shift from being a 1B/DH only player into one who can play the outfield. And, surprisingly, he’s not a complete liability out there. You should always be leery of small sample sizes when it comes to defensive metrics, but UZR likes him a lot in rightfield, and the eye test suggests he’s at least competent. He seems to take good routes and get to the ball quickly. His arm is also stronger than you’d think, considering his background as a first baseman.
Unfortunately, his overall 2021 results aren’t great. He’s still only carrying an 86 wRC+ despite drastically increasing his batting average and slugging percentage. The lack of walks means his .273 OBP is actually a career-worst. When you add up all the missing walks to everything he’s gained, he’s been worth 0.2 fWAR this year. That number is not good, even if it’s better than the negative tally he earned in each of the past two seasons. It’s also better than the value provided by Andrew Benintendi, who has a 0.0 fWAR, and O’Hearn’s .699 OPS is very near to Royals-poster-boy Whit Merrifield’s .707 OPS.
The good news is that it looks like this approach change has been a season-long shift. He was still walking in April and had a nasty slump in July that is bringing his numbers way down. In June and August, though, he has been a terrific hitter with a wRC+ of at least 140 in each month. If he can find some consistency with his new approach, he can justify a roster spot as a right-handed masher with a bit of positional versatility. If he can somehow fold his ability to take a walk back in with the batted ball results he’s earned this year, he could look like an above-average outfield option. Unfortunately, at age 28, his long-term prospects are somewhat diminished. Still, there’s enough talent and production in him this year that some team should take a chance on him in 2022, even if the Royals decide to finally move on. Considering his position coming into the season, that’s a huge win for him.