The MLB Trade Deadline passed late Tuesday afternoon and, when the smoke cleared from the KC Royals’ under-the-wire deals that sent Whit Merrifield to Toronto and Cam Gallagher to San Diego, Ryan O’Hearn was left standing, still but mysteriously a member of the club.
Don’t be surprised. O’Hearn wasn’t going anywhere; no one was trading for a player who’s successfully battled big league pitching only once in a four-plus season career.
Feel free, though, to wonder why the Royals keep O’Hearn. The luster and promise of his 2018 rookie season, when he opened all eyes by clubbing 12 home runs and slashing .262/.353/.597 in 44 games, wore off after he hit .195 not once, but for two straight seasons before batting .225 last year, and .200 so far this season. His career WAR is -2.6.
Yet he plays, most often in right field or at first base, and is manager Mike Matheny’s primary lefthanded pinch hitter.
But why? How does O’Hearn keep his spot on the roster?
Besides the fact he has no trade value, which matters even less now that clubs can’t make any more major league-level deals this season, here are three obvious reasons.
Ryan O’Hearn is, at least for now, the best pinch hitter the KC Royals have.
How a hitter whose slump is now in its fourth season—at .205 since Opening Day 2019, he’s in constant peril of dipping below .200—pinch hits so well is puzzling. But batting for others is what O’Hearn now does best.
Twenty times this year Matheny has subbed him in for another hitter and, in 18 official at-bats, he’s hitting .389 (7-for-18) with a home run and four RBIs. He owns a respectable .250 career average and an even better .350 OBP in the role and his four pinch-hit homers are more than any other Royal ever.
And being a lefty batter increases O’Hearn’s utility … as long as he comes through when Matheny needs him to step up late in a game. Because he manages to succeed so often in such situations, Matheny won’t give him up without a fight.