If the Orioles really do go for broke and acquire Shohei Ohtani in a blockbuster trade, one casualty of bringing aboard the All-Star lefty DH/pitcher would be Ryan O’Hearn and his breakout offensive season. Then again, Ryan O’Hearn is probably used to being passed over.
Another entry in that tried-and-true genre of “Wherever did the Orioles find this guy, and is he any good?,” O’Hearn was a career -2.8 WAR player from 2018-22 with Kansas City. He played just 342 games in five seasons, and averaged .219 with 38 homers, not great for a supposed power hitter. As Mark Brown summarized in an O’Hearn profile: “He neither looked like a veteran with a track record of success nor a young player who might still be polished into something.” Ouch.
Seemingly just one more name in the dizzying glut of lefty 1B/DH-types the Orioles signed in the offseason, O’Hearn missed the 26-man roster out of spring training, outplayed by lefty prospects Kyle Stowers and Terrin Vavra, and even perhaps lagging on the depth chart behind similarly-profiling dark horses like Lewin Díaz, Josh Lester, Nomar Mazara and Franchy Cordero.
Well, O’Hearn has outplayed them all since. The six players in the paragraph above have a combined 38 games in an Orioles uniform this season, while O’Hearn, called up on May 9 from Norfolk, has blossomed into a .305 hitter with 46 hits in 51 games, a team-best 139 OPS+, and the third-highest win probability added (WPA) of all O’s hitters.
Here are some things O’Hearn is doing especially well.
· Mashing the baseball. O’Hearn leads the team in avg. exit velocity (93.5 mph) and is one of the top in MLB Statcast leaderboards in the category. Check out his name alongside some very fancy company:
Here, in hard hit percentage, too:
· Driving in runs. His 29 RBI in 51 games is second-best on the Orioles, accounting for playing time.
· Crushing righties. He’s slashing .317/.365/.528 with an .894 OPS against them.
· Covering non-fastballs, with a .500 slugging percentage on breaking balls and .577 on offspeed pitches.
From -2.8 WAR in five seasons to one of the O’s most productive hitters over 51 games—what’s going on? Here are three explanations grounded in apparent fact, and also one in speculation and fairy dust.
One is usage. O’Hearn does not hit lefties well, and the Orioles haven’t changed that fact. They’ve just decided to end the experiment. 94% of O’Hearn’s at-bats have come against righties, and this is a good thing: O’Hearn is hitting lefties at a wimpy .111/.200/.222 rate, but fortunately, has just 10 plate appearances against them. (For what it’s worth, the Royals were also using O’Hearn this way by the end of his tenure there, in 2021-22.)
Another explanation has nothing to do with O’Hearn or the Orioles, and everything to do with Theo Epstein and the cunning MLB brain trust, who feared that the infield defensive shift was making the game boring, and decided to abolish it.
The 2023 rule change has redounded to the benefit of pull-happy lefties, of which O’Hearn definitely is one. In 2022, O’Hearn hit 39% of batted balls to right field, and he continues to do so in 2023 (38%). Now, however, plenty of balls are reaching right field. His BABIP was a lowly .230 in 2019; this year it’s .361.
That said, platooning and the end of the shift are not the whole story.
Adjustments to O’Hearn’s hitting stance are a third reason for his offensive breakout. As the Baltimore Sun uncovered in a great story last month, Orioles hitting coaches Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte have done extensive work with O’Hearn. Fuller and Borgschulte discovered that during his swing, O’Hearn’s hips were swaying backward toward the catcher, disrupting his timing, while his habit of keeping the bat flat on his shoulder made him hunch and made it harder for him to reach inside pitches or drive the ball the opposite way. The adjustments they worked on with O’Hearn since the spring focused on his lower body timing, his posture, and his hand placement. They also increased his launch angle.
So far, the results have been clear. O’Hearn is hitting career highs in line drives, exit velocity, and opposite-field batted balls, as well as slugging and average. He’s much quicker to inside pitches, which he “used to just freaking pound into the ground.” He’s seen a 70-point jump in average against fastballs, and while his exit velocity was always good (he ranked 23rd among all hitters in avg. EV in 2022, 75th in 2021), it wasn’t Top-10 good.
Recently, MLB Central also did a feature praising O’Hearn’s new stance, which is kind of a fun watch (although The Sun already covered most of this).
The Orioles seem to have done one more thing for O’Hearn: help him with swing decisions. As my CamdenChat colleague John Beers noted last month, throughout his time in the AL Central O’Hearn continually struggled with breaking balls, failing to hit above .174 against sliders and curves in his last four seasons. But this year, his swing percentage and his chase rate against breaking balls have dropped by double digits. This more selective approach is working: only 14 hitters in all MLB hit the ball hard (95 mph or better) 20% of the time they swing the bat. This includes absolute beasts like Yandy Díaz, Juan Soto, Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuña Jr. And, randomly, it also includes Ryan O’Hearn.
A fourth and final explanation for O’Hearn’s 2023 breakout: maybe he’s just happy here? He’s certainly being put to better use than in Kansas City. Asked whether it was unusual that nobody had discovered his swing abnormalities before, O’Hearn responded, “You could say that.” A winning ballclub, a players-first manager, a new approach at the plate, and big offensive numbers in a limited but regular role. For a guy who hit .211 over the last four seasons on a losing team, there’s a lot going right these days.