KC Royals: Ryan O’Hearn faces critical September

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

The KC Royals have played themselves out of any realistic playoff chances. Will Ryan O’Hearn’s September be good enough to secure the first base job?

Barring a baseball miracle, September will be the last month the KC Royals play this season. October baseball for this club, now 10 games under .500 with 22 left to play after Thursday night’s 11-6 loss to the White Sox, has been reduced to a mathematical, but not realistic, possibility.

The Royals will resume their quest for relevance and contention in 2021, of course, but will Ryan O’Hearn be back in the starting lineup? The answer to that question may lie in how he performs this month.

Because Kansas City is now seven games out of the Wild Card race, attention as the season winds down is rapidly shifting from the team to individual performances. Among Royals under close scrutiny will be O’Hearn, whose weak bat continues to cast his role with the club in doubt.

That the 27-year old first baseman would find himself battling for a significant role less than two full seasons after his 2018 rookie campaign seems improbable. O’Hearn belted 12 home runs with 30 RBIs and a .262 average in 44 games in ’18, establishing himself as a rightful claimant to the first base job left open when Eric Hosmer departed after 2017.

But he lost that claim the following June when his .188 average tumbled him back to the minor leagues. Much as they had when they sent Mike Moustakas down amid his battles with the bat in 2014, the Royals hoped a stint in Triple A would cure O’Hearn’s hitting woes.

The move worked—for a time. O’Hearn hit .295 with nine homers and 28 RBIs in 35 games for Omaha to earn a late July recall. Whatever he found in Omaha, though, he suddenly lost in Kansas City: O’Hearn managed only one hit in 17 July at-bats, then hit .200 in August.

Fortunately, September was better and his .250 average with four home runs and 12 RBIs that month gave the club and O’Hearn renewed hope.

September, though, injected another factor into the O’Hearn equation: the club acquired Ryan McBroom from the Yankees and his .293 average in 23 September games quickly thrust him into the first base picture. The O’Hearn-McBroom competition started immediately, continued through spring and summer training, and probably hasn’t ended quite yet.

Although O’Hearn’s starts at first base outnumber McBroom’s by 15, McBroom has been much better at the plate, and offense means more than defense for first sackers. Counting Thursday night’s contest, McBroom is slashing .292/.324/.569 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 29 games.  O’Hearn’s 30-game line of .213/.317/.337 pales in comparison and he’s hit just two home runs. (However, he’s hitting .462 with runners in scoring position; McBroom’s RISP average is a respectable .285).

Going into Thursday’s game against the Sox, right-handed pitching remained the left-handed hitting O’Hearn’s nemesis–he was hitting .208 against right-handers and .333 against southpaws. McBroom, batting from the right side, was .279 against righties, .333 against lefties.

Manager Mike Matheny made no secret of his respect and admiration for O’Hearn well before the season started, which hints at a preference for O’Hearn and may explain why, despite his better offensive numbers, McBroom’s first base seat is second to O’Hearn’s.

A poor September for O’Hearn, however, might force Matheny’s hand. Unlike McBroom, O’Hearn is on track for two straight subpar seasons, a result that won’t bode well for a player seeking to play a major league corner infield position every day.

And O’Hearn’s September is off to a slow start. In Tuesday’s first game of the month, he was hitless in four at-bats, made three inning-ending outs, and struck out swinging to lead off the ninth. He didn’t start against Cleveland Wednesday but struck out as a pinch hitter with a runner on and no one out in the seventh. He was 0-for-3 (albeit with two walks) Thursday night as the designated hitter while Hunter Dozier played first for the 65th time in his KC career.

All eyes will be on O’Hearn for the rest of the month. He must hit. If he doesn’t, he may become another subpar hitter the KC Royals simply can’t afford to play every day. Or he could start 2021 in Omaha.

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September is critical for Ryan O’Hearn. A good month keeps him in the KC Royals’ picture, but a bad one could spell trouble for his future with the club.