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Watching Ryan O’Hearn hit cleanup in 2022 is like stepping on a LEGO brick barefoot

It is far more painful than it should be.

Kansas City Royals first baseman Ryan O’Hearn (66) reacts after striking out in the top of the second inning during the baseball game between the Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros on August 24, 2021 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.
Kansas City Royals first baseman Ryan O’Hearn (66) reacts after striking out in the top of the second inning during the baseball game between the Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros on August 24, 2021 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Royals’ Achilles heel in 2022 is their inability to score. As I write this, the Royals have scored 3.12 runs per game, the second-worst figure in the league. They do so via a toxic combination of an inability to reach base (they rank sixth-worst in on base percentage at .286) and a complete lack of power (an isolated power figure of .097, second-worst in baseball).

Now, such figures are unsustainably low over the course of a full season—even bad teams get hot sometimes, and the Royals have yet to hit their stride. But there was a quote by Mike Matheny a few weeks ago that was, shall we say, a little curious.

It’s not clear what lever the Royals can pull to try to get more out of their offense.

“If I knew, I’d have already done it,” Matheny said. “There’s only so much we can do. Hitting is hard. I mean, it’s hard. You’re going to go through some ruts. It’s going to happen with every club. Hopefully, we’re getting our rut out of the way and we can start putting some things together.

Hitting is so hard, in fact, that 28 other clubs are doing a better job of it. Interestingly, teams don’t find it particularly difficult to hit against Royals pitchers, whose staff ERA of 4.50 is fourth-worst in baseball (but I digress).

But there is one teeny weeny little thing the Royals can do that should be very easy. They can, you know, not use Ryan freaking O’Hearn as the cleanup hitter. That’s a thing you can do, and it’s simple and it’s gonna work because O’Hearn is an awful Major League Baseball hitter.

Watching O’Hearn hit cleanup in The Year of Our Lord 2022 is an excruciating experience that’s like, to me at least, jamming your foot into the pointy end of a LEGO brick. We’re five years into the rebuild and this is the best we can get? Really?

For the record: I do not blame O’Hearn here, just as I do not blame the LEGO brick for just chillin’ in the middle of the room—it didn’t put itself there. I wish O’Hearn the best and would like to see him succeed. However, baseball is a multi-million dollar industry where job performance is public, and O’Hearn has rather convincingly proven he would be an exciting Nippon Professional League player, which is to say he is a rather unexciting Major League Baseball player. Let’s put it this way: since 2019, there have been 255 players who have accrued 750 or more plate appearances. O’Hearn ranks:

  • 251st in batting average
  • 252nd in on base percentage
  • 253rd in wRC+
  • 255th in wins above replacement

At 28 years old and untethered to an unwieldy long-term contract, such a player would be a non-tender candidate. Indeed, the Royals could have non-tendered O’Hearn in the offseason.

The Royals did not do that. Instead, they chose to pay O’Hearn $1.3 million (which, good for him—athletes don’t have forever to make that kind of money). Here’s where it gets weird: there is one reason and one reason only to attempt the O’Hearn As Cleanup Hitter maneuver, and that reason is to give O’Hearn one final, lengthy chance to prove that his 2018 wasn’t just a mirage. It’s not likely to succeed, but it’s a definite plan that rebuilding teams do all the time.

The Royals did not do that, either. O’Hearn accrued a whopping nine (9) plate appearances in the first 20 games of the year, a sample size too tiny to mean anything. Rather, they went with the 36-year-old Carlos Santana, who has been nearly as bad as O’Hearn since last July except eight years older.

Meanwhile, Vinnie Pasquantino is mashing in Triple-A. Kyle Isbel has only been able to find regular playing time after injuries to Adalberto Mondesi, Edward Olivares, and Santana. And yet: O’Hearn persists, unplayable against lefties and still somehow not effective against righties (seriously, check his batting splits by year, it’s kind of amazing).

There is, truly, no performance reason that O’Hearn is batting in such a prominent spot in the lineup. There is no strategic reason he’s batting that high up in the lineup, as his 20 plate appearances this year would suggest. And there’s no tactical reason he’s getting regular playing time, taking plate appearances away from guys that need it more.

Look, LEGO bricks exist, and that’s fine, regardless if you’re barefoot or not. Nobody should be blaming LEGO if they step on on it. But you don’t have to leave LEGO bricks on the floor in such a prominent spot in the first place. You can pick up the brick, move it somewhere less prominent, give it to the Japanese exchange student, whatever. Blame here rests squarely on the shoulders of those who are in charge, whose philosophy and practices resulted in the situation they find themselves in.