Ryan O’Hearn is better at baseball than most of us will ever be at anything in our lives. It earned him a few million dollars and retirement in his 30s if he wanted it. His baseball career has been, by most reasonable measures, a wild success, and he has enviable stories to tell friends and family for the rest of his life.
But Major League Baseball does not often abide by “reasonable measures.” Professional baseball is a high-stakes pressure cooker where simply being one of the best thousand or so workers in their craft isn’t enough. The difference between the top 100 players and the next 900 players is the difference between nine-digit contracts and a nomadic life where younger, faster, hungry talent marches ever closer as the seconds tick, tick, tick.
So we are forced to consider O’Hearn in a different light, a harsher light, lest we heap wild praise on every big leaguer for being athletic marvels and lose sight of what makes MLB fun and exciting. And in that light, with the weightiest of expectations that come with the opportunity to earn millions of dollars, O’Hearn has been a disappointment and someone whose time on an MLB roster should have run out ages ago.
As 2022 came to a close, the Kansas City Royals finally released O’Hearn, who became a 40-man roster casualty to make room for free agent Jordan Lyles. It was a long time coming. After catching lightning in a bottle in 2018, O’Hearn spent the next four seasons in a consistent offensive quagmire, hitting between 28 and 36 percent below league average every year. For a first baseman, those numbers are untenable. Indeed, by Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, O’Hearn has been the second-worst position player in all of baseball since 2019.
All of this has earned O’Hearn the ire of Royals fans who grew tired of watching such a clearly overwhelmed player on such awful teams year after year. O’Hearn had nowhere to hide: a good team might have acted as a shield or a misdirection, and it was not O’Hearn’s fault that his contract kept getting selected.
In the end, O’Hearn stands as the perfect symbol of the faults of the previous baseball operations regime. With such thin talent, there was no room for O’Hearn to bust. And when it was clear that O’Hearn’s usefulness to a big league squad had ended, the team refused to move on, instead doubling down and giving O’Hearn unearned opportunities in the outfield. They were in denial about O’Hearn, for whom the writing was on the wall two seasons ago. They were in denial about a lot of things. That is why they are no longer in charge.
When the new administration gave O’Hearn a $1.4 million deal, there were cries of exasperation and complaints that nothing was really going to change. O’Hearn’s release is evidence to the contrary. Yes, the Royals could have simply nontendered O’Hearn to save that money. But I find it hard to get mad about $1.4 million, especially considering that, thanks to the new CBA, the 2023 MLB minimum salary is all the way up to $720,000. And while the Royals could be on the hook for O’Hearn’s contract this year, that only happens if O’Hearn clears waivers and goes to the minors; every other scenario, from a trade to a waiver pickup, sees another team on the hook for the salary.
Furthermore, for a team like the Royals with no realistic hope for contention in 2023, O’Hearn represents an intriguing and low stakes bench bat option. O’Hearn continues to hit the ball hard—his 2022 average exit velocity ranked 22nd out of 422 hitters with 140 or more plate appearances, hovering around names like Bryce Harper and Julio Rodriguez. More interesting is the shift ban that’s happening in 2023. In 2018, O’Hearn’s impressive rookie campaign, Baseball Savant’s data shows that he was shifted on 16.5 percent of the time. Over the past three years, he has seen a shift in over three quarters of his at bats, and he is significantly better with no shift than against the shift. It will be interesting to see if another team takes a flier on O’Hearn for those reasons.
I hope that O’Hearn does well somewhere else. Maybe it’s here in MLB. Maybe it’s in Japan, where O’Hearn would probably kill it as a Carp or a Fighter or a Dragon. But that team won’t be the Royals. It’s for the best: at 29 years of age, O’Hearn is not going to be the reason the Royals next make the playoffs. Unfortunately for O’Hearn, though, he is one of the reasons the Royals haven’t made the playoffs. Of course, he can’t change that. All he can do is try to maintain his status as one of the thousand best ballplayers in the world.