This is not an article to bag on Ryan O'Hearn. From all appearances, he's a perfectly good dude. He has not publicly complained about his reduced playing time in KC, even as his role was reduced to pinch-hitting and then reduced to nearly-permanent pine resident. By all accounts, he has made every effort to be available to the team in whatever capacity they have requested. I want nothing more than for him to figure out how to find the success he enjoyed after being promoted in 2018, even if it has to be with another team.
Still, O'Hearn has become something of a bogeyman for Royals fans over the past few years. He was promoted, had immediate success, and became nearly unplayably bad overnight. The seemingly is added there because the Royals spent the next three years playing him as often as they could, trying to help him rekindle the spark of his rookie debut. Following a slew of other failed first base prospects, from Ken Harvey to Kila Kaʻaihue to even the polarizing Eric Hosmer O'Hearn's tale has become about how the Royals have become so desperate they'll allow a failed prospect to haunt their lineup for years at a time.
There are, as ever, no guarantees in life. Baseball, as the old cliche goes, is a game of failure. Vinnie Pasquantino could turn out to be one of those AAAA guys the Royals have specialized in producing over the years.
There's no particular reason to expect that outcome beyond the usual caveats. In fact, there are a lot of reasons to think that Pasquantino might be the really real deal. Before we get too deep into that, let's talk about the headline. You can find the raw numbers I used to create the comparisons at the excellent FanGraphs.
Vinnie Pasquantino and Ryan O'Hearn's minor league careers are very different
It's easy to think that Pasquantino and O'Hearn have much in common. They're both big, left-handed-hitting first-basemen who were drafted in the middle rounds by the Royals. But there are a lot of differences between them from there. You can often tell a lot about how likely a prospect is to succeed by how old he is when he debuts, how quickly he advances through the minors, and what kinds of stats he was putting up as he progressed. Bobby Witt Jr. debuted at age 22 after spending only three seasons in the minor leagues, and it's reasonable to wonder if he might have spent less had there not been a pandemic in 2020. He put up good numbers all along the way. This matches the expectation that he would be outstanding, and after a rough start, he's been quite good for KC.
O'Hearn debuted at age 24, still a decent prospect age though not as impressive as Witt's. However, O'Hearn spent most of five years in the minors before getting the call. That's not a death knell for a career, but it's significant. It's been said that Witt has a slow start at every new level he reaches, but his slow starts were always short-lived. O'Hearn, on the other hand, regularly started slow after a promotion and only improved when he repeated that level the following season. Additionally, by the time he reached AAA, his numbers were below average for the league. He repeated the level in 2018, and the numbers got worse somehow. The Royals promoted him because they needed a first baseman and because his exit velocities were allegedly outstanding, but the results definitely weren't there.
Meanwhile, Pasquantino also debuted at age 24 but was only in his fourth year in the minors (and was promoted earlier in the season than O'Hearn, too.) Pasquantino never did anything but hit, either. While O'Hearn had a higher high with a 191 wRC+ in 22 games in A+ at age 22, he had a much lower low with an 87 wRC+ before he was promoted in 2018. (It followed a 99 wRC+ he accumulated after being promoted to AAA in 2017) Pasquantino's wRC+ for a level never dipped below the 145 he was putting up in AAA before his promotion this season. The same thing we said about Witt spending less time in the minors without a pandemic earlier also applies to Pasquantino, though perhaps not as strongly.
Directly comparing their numbers in the minors also shows some pretty stark discrepancies. Pasquantino regularly walked and struck out far less than O'Hearn at every level. His strikeout numbers actually improved with each promotion, while O'Hearn's took the more standard path and got worse. Vinnie also hit the ball on the ground about 10% less often and had better ISO numbers to show for it. Finally, Vinnie's BABIP numbers were much lower than O'Hearn's. This, combined with the groundball numbers, suggests that Pasquantino's successes relied less on luck than O'Hearn's. It's also probably worth noting that nearly all of Pasquantino's minor league career came post-shift explosion while O'Hearn's mainly came before it. That means Pasquantino is used to finding success despite a second-baseman playing in shallow right field, whereas O'Hearn has had to adjust to that defensive alignment.
All this to say, if Pasquantino ends up failing as a major league hitter, it won't be because he was just like O'Hearn.
Fun with numbers
We've established who Pasquantino isn't, but it might be fun to see who he is like. That's where the always-fun Baseball Savant can help us out. All of these rankings are for all batters with at least 50 batted ball events because Pasquantino only managed to get 58 before the All-Star Break. It's a small sample size, so you might not want to read too much into it, but a small sample size pointing to good things is still better than the alternative.
The thing you probably know but haven't classified in depth is that Vinnie hits the ball hard. The most basic comparison I like when checking Baseball Savant is batting stats vs expected stats. Vinnie's actual stats are all far below his expected stats because he hits the ball so hard. This includes a full 80-point difference between his weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) and Expected wOBA (xwOBA).
So that tells you he's been a bit unlucky, but what could we expect if that weren't the case? Well, only three batters in all of MLB have a higher average exit velocity: Yordan Alvarez, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton. Vinnie's average exit velocity of 95 MPH puts him ahead of literally every other batter with at least 50 batted balls. Vinnie is even ahead of Stanton when you check on the percentage of balls hit over 95 MPH.
Perhaps the most impressive stat, though, is that absolutely nobody hits the ball hard as often per swing as Vinnie has since he was called up. He does so 28.2% of the time. Let me say that again: more than a quarter of Vinnie's swings - not batted balls, but swings - end up being hard contact. When he swings, good things happen. For reference, the next closest is Yordan Alvarez at 24.5%. His eight barrels tie him at 244th out of 418 batters with at least 50 batted ball events. For comparison, Whit Merrifield has had nearly six times as many batted balls and achieved only five additional barrels.
After all that, you might recall that O'Hearn was known for hitting the ball hard when he came up in 2018. So here's just a little bit more comparison. O'Hearn's average exit velocity by the end of his debut was 91.4 MPH in 102 BBEs, a significant drop-off. Additionally, his .woba was .398 with an xwOBA of .343. Compare that to Vinnie's .299 and .412, respectively. Ryan's hard-hit percentage was 44.2% compared to Vinnie's 60.3%. Ryan swung and missed twice as often as Vinnie in their respective debuts. Ryan's success was also accompanied by a sudden, unexplained drop-off in groundballs, while Vinnie is currently hitting more than normal.
None of this guarantees that Vinnie will have a long successful career. He might still turn out to be a dud. The major league track record is still a tiny sample size, and all the good news is the process-over-results sort. But if you forced me to wager, I'd be more willing to bet that Vinnie Pasquantino has a great career than a bad one. And even if it does turn out bad, it won't be because he is the same as Ryan O'Hearn.