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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Ryan O’Hearn

Did you predict Ryan O’Hearn as a key contributor to the 2023 Orioles? If you answered yes, I don’t believe you

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles
Ryan O’Hearn is the best Orioles hitter with at least 100 plate appearances this year.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Periodically, Camden Chat checks in on new additions to the Orioles 40-man roster. I forgot to do this since the season began. My bad. The following players who’ve come and gone will not receive articles: Luis Torrens, Reed Garrett, José Godoy.

How he arrived: Contract selected 4/13/23 (previously acquired from Royals for cash 1/3/23, designated for assignment 1/5, outrighted to Norfolk 1/12)

Who left: Anthony Bemboom DFA 4/13/23

The Orioles spent the offseason collecting left-handed hitting first base/designated hitter-type players for their own inscrutable reasons. In addition to O’Hearn, there was a waiver claim made of Lewin Díaz, and minor league signings of Josh Lester and Franchy Cordero.

By the start of spring training, none of these players were on the 40-man roster but all were invited to camp. A lot of beat writer energy was spent trying to assess the chances of one of these guys making the roster. I assumed it would be none of them, and for Opening Day at least, I was right. Cordero opted out of his contract at the end of spring training, signed with the Yankees, hit two home runs in two games against the Orioles in April, then stunk and got exiled to the minors. Cordero has one MLB at-bat since the calendar turned to May.

O’Hearn’s addition to the roster at any price for any reason was confusing. That’s because he was 29 years old and in five career seasons, posted this batting line: .219/.293/.390. He neither looked like a veteran with a track record of success nor a young player who might still be polished into something. Over those five years with the Royals, he was worth a combined -2.8 WAR. Negative 2.8!

All there really was to cling to in the face of that is that maybe there was some chronic ineptitude with Royals player development holding O’Hearn back all that time. With how that team has performed since 2018, it’s not a bad theory. One other thing might have been working in O’Hearn’s favor: The new shift rules figured to have the most benefit for pull-heavy lefties like him, who’d been impacted the most by the proliferation of shifts.

A number of players with this basic story rolled through the Orioles from 2019 on into the first half of last season. You could squint and see one or two things where if they turned out differently, maybe the player could be productive or even valuable to a future good Orioles team. The improvement was possible, but most were scrubs who’d only ever be scrubs. The safest bet for any individual one of these dudes would be to assume he’d end up as a forgotten part of a future Sporcle quiz.

About two weeks into the season, the Orioles decided it was O’Hearn’s time to get a chance at the same time they decided, not for the last time this season, that having three catchers on the roster was not a worthwhile thing to do. O’Hearn was in the Orioles lineup that day - April 13 - against the Athletics, and he made his mark immediately, picking up two hits and a sacrifice fly that led to a total of three runs driven in. All of these were crucial runs in a game the Orioles won, 8-7.

Over the next few weeks, O’Hearn played sporadically, totaling just nine games and five starts beginning with his season debut on through to May 3. He picked up just three hits over his next 18 at-bats. With a minor league option remaining, the Orioles could send him to Norfolk rather than designate him for assignment, and that’s what they did. I thought that’s the last we’d see of O’Hearn, who at this point had a .634 OPS.

Instead, only six days later, the hamstring injury suffered by Ramón Urías afforded the Orioles the opportunity to bring O’Hearn back - at the same time they decided, for a second (and still not the last) time, that having a third catcher on the roster was not valuable. This second stint has turned him into a fun role player story.

In 41 team games since coming back from Norfolk, O’Hearn has played in 26 games and started 23, with this total batting line: .325/.364/.615. Ryan Mountcastle’s vertigo offered O’Hearn the chance to play some first base, though the Orioles have also occasionally stuck him in right field (and even once in left) and at designated hitter. About two weeks ago, he moved from being a bottom of the order hitter to being the cleanup batter, when he plays.

It is weird. The results are, so far, not bad. A glance at the Statcast expected numbers based on batted ball data gives a sketch that basically looks like O’Hearn has somehow vacuumed up all of the good luck that Mountcastle simply has not had since the start of last season. O’Hearn’s batting average of .314 is 58 points higher than his xBA.

It’s not entirely a fluke, though: The ball is finding the barrel 50% more often than his career to date, and the result is an average exit velocity that’s the best of his career. That’s a good formula for having a career year. Also, the gap between O’Hearn’s slugging percentage (.559) and xSLG is only 31 points. If he declines to his current xSLG, I’m confident the team can still make use of a guy who slugs over .500.

One thing that’s helping O’Hearn is that the Orioles are dedicated to using him almost exclusively as a platoon player. Just five of his 110 plate appearances this season have come against lefties. He has rewarded them so far. Will it last? That is always the question. O’Hearn’s BABIP of .366 is 88 points above his career mark of .278. He already has regressed a bit, hitting just 2-15 over the last week, and is likely due to regress some more.

A combination of O’Hearn’s sustained level of performance and the health and performance of Mountcastle will probably determine his playing time going forward. Those fans who are keenly aware of Mountcastle being hitless in the first few games of a Triple-A rehab assignment are not in a rush to see his return. The pre-injured list performance of Mountcastle did not do much to add to the ranks of his fan club, either.

How the Orioles think is always more of a mystery. As Mike Elias glibly stated recently, the team is deciding things based on more than back of the baseball card stats. The decisions do not always line up with what fans expect or want. Platooning at first base does not seem like a very good use of two roster spots to me, which does not mean the Orioles won’t do it for a little while.

Three months into the 2023 season, the Orioles thought process is working out very well, even when individual decisions disappoint me. Hopefully, that continues to be the case and O’Hearn continues to be a part of that.

Still to come: Josh Lester, Jordan Westburg