2020 KC Royals season preview: Ryan O’Hearn

In 2020, the goal for Ryan O’Hearn will be to get back to how well he played for the KC Royals during the 2018 season, and to put 2019 behind him.

Welcome back to the Kings of Kauffman 2020 KC Royals season previews. We are working our way through 30 different Royals that fans will likely see during the 2020 season. We will take a look at their previous season, some expectations for 2020, and any other pertinent information. This time, we are looking at Ryan O’Hearn.

What did he offer last season?

Ryan O’Hearn had a fascinating 2019 for the KC Royals. He played poorly enough through the first half of the season that he was demoted down to Omaha in June. He basically destroyed the Pacific Coast League for 35 games and was then brought back to Kansas City.

O’Hearn’s numbers did improve after his second-half call-up. Truthfully, that is somewhat misleading. One of O’Hearn’s statistics was much improved over the second half of 2019. And for O’Hearn it may be the one statistic that matters more than any others. He hit the ball hard.

Back in 2018, O’Hearn was not exactly a red-hot prospect and he was just decent in AAA through 100 games. Midway through that season, he was given his shot by being called up to the KC Royals. Mostly, if we’re being honest, because Lucas Duda was…well, being Duda.

And Ryan did not take his opportunity for granted. He slugged almost .600 and got on base in more than 35 percent of his plate appearances. He hit 12 homeruns in 44 games. He was a Jorge Soler level slugger.

Going into the 2019 season there was a lot of optimism around Ryan O’Hearn’s chances to keep shining. It would not work out quite that way, though.

Ryan has always been willing to take a walk and continued to in 2019. But, his hard-hit percentage had been over 43 percent in 2018. Over the first half of 2019, it was just 36 percent. His slugging percentage was down to .333. When he was connecting, he was just not hitting the ball hard enough.

The story got better in the second half for O’Hearn. He spent 35 games playing for Omaha and, essentially, just demolished AAA pitching. His strikeout rate was all the way down to 20 percent, as low as it has ever been. He hit nearly .300, got on base in over 38 percent of his plate appearances, and he hit 20 extra-base hits, including 9 homeruns.

After being called back up to the KC Royals, Ryan was better. Interestingly enough, his walk rate was lower and his strikeout rate was higher over his second half of the season. His On-Base percentage stayed about the same.

The real difference was he made better contact. His hard-hit rate went over 51 percent for the second half. His soft hit percentage dropped all the way down to 10. Whatever adjustment he made, it allowed him to hit the ball harder.

Ryan O’Hearn is going to be a player who lives and dies with his slugging percentage. And, for a corner infielder, that can be just fine. As we can see in the below video, he has some easy power. Even in today’s game that is a rare trait. He possesses the kind of power that can handle Kauffman Stadium.

What should we expect in 2020?

Here are the stat line projections for O’Hearn’s 2020 season from both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs:

B-Ref: .228/.309/.438 line, 17 2B, 18 HR, 51 RBI, .747 OPS
FG: .235/.314/.435 line, 20 2B, 19 HR, 58 RBI, .749 OPS

Everyone seems to agree that Ryan O’Hearn will be better in 2020 than he was in 2019. There also is the agreement that he will not be as good as he was in 2018. I think all these numbers are reasonable to expect. O’Hearn has shown the ability in his career to work an at-bat. He has shown patience. And he has demonstrated real big-league power. Those traits, alone, should be able to keep his OPS over .700 in 2019 if he can consistently make good contact.

The verdict

What we learned in 2019 with Ryan O’Hearn is that even though his 44 games in 2018 were not exactly a mirage, it was also not real life. Ryan O’Hearn has a skill set that can translate into hitting at the major league level. But he has some deficits that he needs to continue to work on.

As a major leaguer for the KC Royals Ryan O’Hearn has an OPS of only .491 against lefties. Against righties, he has hit an OPS over .800. Because of this, I would expect to see some platoon with right-handed Ryan McBroom. O’Hearn only has 102 plate appearances against lefties in the big leagues, but I think it is enough that we should, at least early in 2020, put him in positions to succeed. And that probably means avoiding lefties.

Ryan O’Hearn is 26 years old. He has played in 149 big league games for the KC Royals. And he has hit 26 homeruns. The question of whether he still has anything left to prove in AAA seemed to be answered with an emphatic “no” last season. Every indication seems to be that Mike Matheny will give him every chance to win the first base job outright.

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Ryan O’Hearn may need to learn how to hit with the shift on in front of him. He may need to learn how to adjust to how big-league pitchers are now attacking him differently than they did when he was more of an unknown. But, mostly, he just needs to continue to make hard contact. If he can do that, he will enjoy some level of success. I believe his track record shows that he can do it.