Royals first baseman Ryan O’Hearn was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary campaign in 2018. In 44 games and 170 plate appearances, O’Hearn posted a slash of .262/.353/.597 to go along with an OPS of .950 and wRC+ of 153 (53 runs above average). The former 8th-round-pick demonstrated considerable power in his late-season call-up to the big league club, as he hit 12 home runs, had 30 RBI, and posted an isolated slugging of .336, an insane number, despite the sample size. With the Royals embracing a youth movement going into 2019, it seemed like O’Hearn would be part of Dayton Moore and the Royals organization’s plans at first base for the future.
But then in spring training, the Royals re-signed Lucas Duda (who was traded in 2018 to Atlanta) to a minor league contract.
The move to sign Duda was not a surprising one and is defensible in many regards. With O’Hearn relatively unproven at the Major League level beyond his hot finish to 2018, and Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler having their fair share of struggles with inconsistency and injury the past couple of seasons, Duda, in theory, would provide temporary insurance at the plate at the first base and DH spots should none of the three live up to expectations in 2019.
Well, as we know Dozier has been a machine at the plate, and Soler, despite strikeout issues, is also proving to be a mainstay in the RF/DH spot thanks to his power. The only one with issues has been O’Hearn, who got off to a rough first month of the season, as evidenced by a .167/.283/.333 slash, .616 OPS and 67 OPS+ in the first 26 games of the season (where he accumulated 99 plate appearances). Granted, Duda hadn’t been much better in April (.174/.304/.326 slugging; .630 OPS in 56 plate appearances) before he hit the 10-day injured list, but there was the fear that Duda, a veteran in the league, would start to get preference at first or DH over O’Hearn unless O’Hearn turned it around offensively.
Well, so far, with Duda on the shelf, O’Hearn has finally begun to showcase that 2018 self at the plate. In 24 plate appearances in May, O’Hearn is posting a .350/.458/.600 slash with a 1.058 OPS to go along with a home run and 5 RBI. What has been most impressive about O’Hearn’s start to May is his improved eye at the plate. After striking out 25 times and only walking 13 times in March/April, he has only struck out three times and walked four times, nearly double the BB/K ratio. While it’s a small sample size, and there’s plenty of baseball left to be played in May as well as the season, it shows that O’Hearn is improving his approach at the plate as he gains more Major League at-bats.
And that is why the Royals would be better off cutting Duda off sooner rather than later.
O’Hearn is not an elite prospect by any measure. Fangraphs rated him as the 18th best prospect in the Royals system going into 2018, and John Sickels of Minor League Ball rated him 17th in the Royals System in his 2018 Royals prospect rankings. Here’s what Sickels had to say about O’Hearn in his Scouting Report:
17) Ryan O’Hearn, 1B, Grade C+: Age 24, eighth round pick in 2014 from Sam Houston State University; hit .253/.330/.455 with 22 homers, 55 walks, 139 strikeouts in 479 at-bats in Double-A/Triple-A; a solid enough year but as with Samir Duenez it isn’t huge production for his position plus O’Hearn is older; could be a useful role bat along Clint Robinson lines. ETA 2018.
For those who don’t remember, Robinson was blocked in the Royals system by Eric Hosmer and struggled to get an opportunity at the big league level despite a decent skill set. Thankfully for O’Hearn, with Hosmer gone, and Dozier more of a mainstay at third base, he has gotten the opportunity to get at-bats in Kansas City that Robinson never did (though as mentioned in the article, Robinson is doing okay with the Nationals).
O’Hearn is mostly known for his bat rather than his glove, and unlike Dozier, he doesn’t offer much position flexibility. It’s pretty much first or DH for O’Hearn with lackluster speed (rated a 30/30 speed according to Fangraphs) and questionable defense (rated a 40/45 field according to Fangraphs). But the bat has always been there for O’Hearn, especially when it comes to power. Fangraphs gave him a 45/55 Game Power grade with a 60/60 Raw Power rating. In many ways, O’Hearn does profile as a younger, more cost-controlled Duda, which makes the re-signing of Duda this offseason questionable. (why get a rental of Duda when you can get a younger version way cheaper and with more controlled years?)
But as expected with a Duda 2.0, strikeouts are a problem for O’Hearn.
Even during his breakout campaign of 2018, the former Sam Houston State star posted a high strikeout rate. In 2018, he had a strikeout rate of 26.5 percent and a contact rate of 70.6, both pretty sub-standard marks in those respective categories. And this also was an issue in the minors, as he had a 23.9 percent strikeout rate in Omaha in 2018, and in 2017, he had strikeout rates of 25.7 and 26.3 percent in stints in Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, respectively. Granted, O’Hearn had made up for this deficiency with good walk rates (11.8 percent with the Royals last year; 11.1 in Omaha in 2018; 9.7 and 13.2 in Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, respectively, in 2017). But unfortunately, guys who struggle to make consistent contact, regardless of batting eye, in the minors like O’Hearn don’t have a great track record of prolonged success at the big league level (i.e. John Bowker for those who are Giants fans).
However, despite a flawed skill set, O’Hearn has done his part to improve on his approach. He has increased his walk rate (13.8 percent) and contact rate (75.9) while decreasing his strikeout rate (22.8 percent) and swinging strike percentage (12.3 to 9.2 percent). So even though the production wasn’t there initially in March/April, O’Hearn’s skill set was, and now in May, we are starting to see that production coming through now that his BABIP is corresponding upward (.375 BABIP in May compared to a .193 BABIP in March/April).
That isn’t to say O’Hearn is going to develop into an Eric Hosmer anytime soon. O’Hearn truly is a younger Duda in the sense that he profiles closer to a three true outcomes (walk, strikeout or home run) guy than a Hosmer or Dozier. He probably won’t ever hit for a high average (.270 may be best case scenario), and even though he will get on base, he is strictly a station-to-station guy, which doesn’t really gel with Ned Yost’s “run at all costs” approach this year. But O’Hearn will be productive, and hopefully, he can turn this hot start in May into consistent production this summer, which would solidify the Royals’ lineup at first (or at least against right-handed hitters; he’s 0-for-23 against lefties this year, which limits his everyday value).
There is some value to Duda and his skill set: he’s a veteran at-bat, and he can still showcase some power on occasion. But he’s nowhere near the 30 home run guy he was two years ago, and injuries and a declining skill set have ravaged him to a more regular DH/PH role. For a team in playoff contention, that kind of role would be needed. For a team rebuilding, however? Duda’s tools, especially with O’Hearn on the roster, is excessive. Yes, he’s only costing the Royals $1.25 million this year, and he is on a one year deal. And sure, eating $1.25 million is not easy for any club, especially a small market one like the Royals. But as long as he’s on the active roster, Duda will be doing more harm than good as he will be blocking someone more deserving in Triple-A, such as Nicky Lopez, who could offer some versatility in the infield with third-baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, who has also performed well in his call-up to the big league club, and is posting a .300/.317/.450 slash (though for this scenario to happen, the Royals may need to part ways with Chris Owings, who has become Chris Getz 2.0).
Duda still is on the IL, which means that this problem of “what to do with Duda?” won’t need to be handled immediately. But it will be interesting to see how Moore handles Duda when he is eligible to return. The Royals young players are starting to come around, and already have showcased some glimmers of hope, especially offensively, after a big 12-2 win over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night.
But this needs to be certain: O’Hearn needs to be a mainstay in the Royals lineup in 2019. If Yost continues to give him the opportunity, it’s possible that he could help make the middle of the Royals lineup one of the more effective (as well as surprising) ones in the AL Central by year’s end.