When Orioles spring training opened up, the team had a collection of lefty first base/designated hitter types who had never quite lived up to potential elsewhere. That group was Franchy Cordero, Lewin Díaz, Josh Lester, and Ryan O’Hearn. There was not much reason at that time to have a preference for any one of them compared to the others, or to believe that any good outcome for the 2023 Orioles would involve one of this set of players getting significant playing time.
O’Hearn was essentially freely available in the offseason. The Orioles received him in exchange for cash considerations from the Royals on January 3 and designated him for assignment two days later. Any team could have claimed O’Hearn at that time. It’s not much surprise that no one did. He was a 29-year-old with a career .683 OPS. He was in Orioles camp as a non-roster invitee and when he did not make the Opening Day roster, that wasn’t a surprise either.
The basic bet in assembling O’Hearn and these other players for a spring training competition seems to have been to grab some lefty bats who may have disproportionately suffered because of defenses being able to shift on them. Then, see if anyone blossoms when the rules changed to ban those extreme shifts this year. This would have been a good low-cost bet to make even if none of those guys ever contributed to the 2023 Orioles. It is even better since there was a positive outcome from that effort.
It did not take very far into the season for O’Hearn to arrive on the Orioles. His contract was selected from Norfolk on April 13, with the O’s shuffling third catcher Anthony Bemboom off the roster. Though I certainly would not have guessed it at the time, this was O’Hearn arriving for good. He was not sent back to the Tides for the remainder of the season, even though he had a minor league option and the team could have done so if it wanted.
From the get-go, O’Hearn made an impact. His first game after being called up was an 8-7 Orioles win in which he drove in three of the runs. A May 20 game in Toronto saw O’Hearn hit a two-out, three-run home run to tie the game in the eighth inning when the Orioles went on to win it in extras. Not many preseason Bingo cards would have had that on them.
By the end of May, O’Hearn was still only a part-time player, and not a very big part of the time at that. Through that point, he’d played in just 17 of the 43 games since his call-up and taken only 48 plate appearances, frequently going several games between appearing at all. He was a bench bat against righties, and occasionally a starter at first base, designated hitter, or even right field.
Once the calendar turned over into June, the sparing use of O’Hearn changed. From June 1 forward, he never went more than one game of rest before playing again. When Ryan Mountcastle was placed on the injured list due to vertigo, that was part of what opened up more consistent time for O’Hearn, but the trend was already happening before Mountcastle missed a month worth of action.
When your part-time guy is at an .845 OPS on May 31, maybe it’s time to make him more of a regular. That’s what the team did. O’Hearn rewarded the team with a June where he OPSed .867 and that went even higher in July, when O’Hearn OPSed .893 in 25 games, with 15 runs driven in. If any Oriole had hit like that over the full season, he would have been the best hitter on the team. O’Hearn did not, as even though he had a .959 OPS from September 1-22 and was on track for a great month, he finished his season on a rough 0-21 skid that took some of the shine off his season totals.
For the season overall, O’Hearn batted .289/.322/.480 in 112 games. He was one of four Orioles to finish with an OPS above .800 - only Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman, and Aaron Hicks were ahead of him. It was a smaller sample size for O’Hearn, only 368 PA, and part of the reason for that success was surely that the Orioles managed things so that he seldom had to face a lefty pitcher.
Still: Those are some solid numbers, and they came with solid peripherals. O’Hearn, notably, was in the 94th percentile of all MLB batters with hard hit percentage, registering on that scale 51.5% of the time. Along with that, his average exit velocity of 91.9mph was 89th percentile among MLB batters. On the other hand, he was only 33rd percentile in chasing outside the zone 30.9% of the time, and his 4.1% walk rate was just 2nd percentile this season.
Of interest to me is that it’s not even like O’Hearn only achieved this based on the change in the shift rules. He went from pulling the ball 43% of the time last season down to 38.4% - so it’s not like this was all making up the difference by hitting the ball where you couldn’t shift any more.
It all added up to a 1.2 bWAR/ 1.4 fWAR season for O’Hearn. That’s a good value for a bench batter who only got about half a season worth of plate appearances! This was not the biggest reason the Orioles surprised with 101 wins this year, but it was a reason. He might have given back a bit less on defense if the team had not had him make 18 starts in the outfield.
Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?
O’Hearn will be headed into his age 30 season next year. It is set to be a final year of arbitration before he becomes a free agent after the 2024 campaign. Because O’Hearn languished in the Royals organization for most of his career, his last arbitration year comes at a modest estimated $3 million cost, per MLB Trade Rumors. That is not a substantial cost and there is no reason for the Orioles to worry about it.
Over the course of 2023, O’Hearn carved out a role for himself that should carry over into next year: The strong half of a first base/DH platoon (possibly alongside Mountcastle) and an acceptable bench option on days where he doesn’t start.
I think O’Hearn seems like an easy choice to carry over, though the O’s should line up some more minor league depth in case O’Hearn’s career revival upon escaping Kansas City only lasts this one year. To consider a couple of examples from the last O’s team to win the division, 2015 was much less kind to Steve Pearce than 2014 was, and it was even worse to Delmon Young. One part of trying to win again next year will be to be prepared to move on from the players whose magic was confined to 2023.
2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann
Monday: Mike Baumann