Olivares and O’Hearn Are Intriguing (But Still Challenging) Situations for the Royals

While the Royals pitching in 2022 garnered most of the negative attention from Royals fans, one could argue that the Royals’ offense wasn’t much better, and a big contributor to their 65-97 record last season. Even though the Royals were in the middle of the league when it came to batting average (14th), they still ranked 24th in OPS and runs scored, according to Fangraphs.

Therefore, while pitching improvement needs to be a priority for new manager Matt Quatraro and the Royals coaching staff, hitting cannot simply be ignored, especially if Kansas City wants to move up in the AL Central division standings in 2023.

Now, the cupboard is far from bare on an offensive end, and a change in roster makeup by the Trade Deadline last year did give Royals fans some hope that better days are on the horizon in regard to hitting.

Bobby Witt, Jr. didn’t finish within the Top-3 in the AL Rookie of the Year race as hoped (thus, costing him a shot to gain an extra year of team control). However, he led the team in fWAR with a 2.3 mark, and he also had a historic 20 HR and 30 SB campaign which was one of the most productive rookie seasons in Royals history.

And Witt wasn’t the lone productive rookie in Kansas City last season.

MJ Melendez, Michael Massey, Vinnie Pasquantino, Nick Pratto, and Drew Waters all showed flashes of promise in their MLB debuts. That is a big reason why the Royals have not been an active player in the free agent market this offseason, especially on a position player end. Kansas City would be better off letting their young players get more at-bats in 2023 rather than see them blocked by retread veterans, as many were at the beginning of last season.

While the young second-year players are garnering the most attention, there are two polarizing bats on the Royals roster not being talked about who could have a positive contribution to this Royals squad in 2023:

Edward Olivares and Ryan O’Hearn.

Of course, there will be a lot of Royals fans who may not agree that these two will have much of a positive impact on the Royals in 2023, especially in regard to the latter, who’s been a magnet for criticism over the past couple of seasons.

Both players have their share of issues, which could prevent them from being regular or long-term options in the lineup in Kansas City. It is fairly possible that 2023 could be the pair’s final campaign in Royals uniforms (and that’s if they last the entire season).

That said, when diving deeper into Olivares’ and O’Hearn’s metrics from a season ago, there are some encouraging trends that could make both of them valuable bench/utility options for the Royals this season.

Olivares’ Improvement in Quality Contact

When Olivares was acquired from San Diego in the Trevor Rosenthal deal, he gained a lot of hype for a solid stretch in 2020 after being traded. In 18 games and 65 plate appearances, Olivares posted a triple slash of .274/.292/.419 which included a wOBA of .302 and two home runs, and seven RBI to boot.

However, the batted ball data produced a more skeptical view of his “positive” 2020 season in Kansas City.

Olivares saw his average exit velocity on batted balls go from 85.3 MPH in San Diego that year (which is already pretty low) to 81.4 MPH in Kansas City, which is pretty punchless (to compare, Nicky Lopez posted an average exit velocity of 84.9 MPH in 2020). And that wasn’t the lone category where Olivares saw major declines in. He dropped 5.3 degrees in average launch angle, 16.9 percent in hard-hit rate, and 5.2 percent in barrel rate.

Did Olivares show promise as a young 24-year-old outfielder? Sure, but his questionable Statcast metrics, as well as mediocre defense, made him a hazy long-term option in the Royals’ outfield (and that haziness contributed to the Royals acquiring Michael A. Taylor that offseason).

Despite a weird first-half-year in Kansas City, Olivares has slowly seen gains in his quality of contact over the past two seasons. This is despite being optioned to Omaha frequently and going through his fair share of injuries that limited him to 92 games and 262 plate appearances in 2021 and 2022 combined.

In 2021, he saw his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate improve to 87.3 MPH and 31 percent, respectively. Last year, those numbers improved to 88.9 MPH and 38.9 percent, both career highs. Additionally, Olivares also posted barrel rates of 6.0 and 6.3 percent, showing that his ability to hit with power has taken positive, though incremental steps over the past two years with the Royals.

Based on average exit velocity breakdown data, it seems like something clicked for Olivares midway through the 2021 season. Notice how there is a spike in average exit velocity around that time, and that positive trend continues through the end of 2022.

To see that consistency in batted ball average exit velocity in 2022 is an encouraging sign, especially since it was above average for most of the season. It demonstrates that Olivares could be a legitimate offensive threat as a corner outfielder or even a spot-designated hitter.

A big reason for Olivares’ improvement in quality contact could perhaps be credited to a slight change in his batting stance from his rookie season.

In this at-bat against Cal Quantrill in 2020, notice how Olivares in his stance starts with his hands low around his chest. He is able to rope a single up the middle, but one can tell that he is late and he struggles to generate a lot of velocity behind his swing in the process (or at least that velocity is late-developing).

Now, let’s flash forward to 2022 and see the difference in Olivares’ stance and swing against Oakland’s Cole Irvin, which results in a home run at Kauffman Stadium.

The main adjustment is Olivares’ hands, as he keeps them up around his shoulders in his stance, rather than around his chest like he did in 2020. This helps Olivares generate a quicker path to the ball, and as a result, he barrels the ball 430 feet with an exit velocity of 108 MPH.

The only issue that remains with Olivares is that he still fails to produce loft under the ball, as he only generated a launch angle of 6.6 degrees, which is actually a 1.3 decline from 2021. In addition, he also produced a GB rate of 46 percent, and has a career GB rate of 46.8 percent, according to Fangraphs. Hitting the ball hard but frequently on the ground is not a recipe for success (ask Kelvin Gutierrez).

Considering that Olivares is always going to be a free swinger (0.28 BB/K ratio; 51.2 percent swing rate last year), how he develops in launching the ball in 2023 could be the key. The data trend certainly doesn’t favor him right now, as he has a career launch angle average of 7.2 degrees.

That said, if Alec Zumwalt and Drew Saylor can help him this offseason and spring continue his development in his path to the ball, then it is possible that Olivares can improve his launch angle to double digits, which could help him be a double-digit home run hitter, and maybe more in 2023.

O’Hearn’s Return Makes Sense Considering the Statcast Metrics

The Royals agreed to a contract with O’Hearn early, with the amount coming to about $1.4 million, according to Jon Heyman back in November.

Of course, Royals fans were upset, especially since O’Hearn plays the same position primarily as Pasquantino and Pratto, and has produced -2.5 fWAR from 2019 to 2022.

That kind of frustration is certainly understandable, especially since the Royals seem cautious this offseason in terms of how they are spending money via free agency. One would think a new player on a Minor League deal or someone from within the organization to take O’Hearn’s spot on the roster would make more sense.

When looking at Royals hitters though with 50 or more plate appearances from a season ago, O’Hearn actually ranked first in terms of average exit velocity on batted balls, ahead of other sluggers like Pasqunatino, Witt, and even Salvador Perez.

The big knock on O’Hearn traditionally has been his inability to keep the ball off the ground. And yet, his launch angle last year on batted balls (13.4 degrees) was better than Carlos Santana (12.7 degrees), Andrew Benintendi (11.2 degrees), Hunter Dozier (13.1 degrees), and even Pasquantino (12.1 degrees).

Furthermore, in terms of expected statistics, O’Hearn looks a whole lot better as well. He ranked third in xBA (.271) and fifth in xwOBA (.327). In fact, when comparing O’Hearn’s wOBA breakdown chart to his xwOBA one, it’s easy to see what he could do in 2023 without the shift and a little bit more batted ball luck (career .268 BABIP).

(Scroll right for wOBA and left for xwOBA).

Granted, the “no shift” improvement is a polarizing take among baseball fans. At the end of the day, good hitters are able to find holes in the defense, regardless of how they are played.

For a bench bat though like O’Hearn, that change in rules can not only be helpful for him but also for a Royals team that will basically be relying on him for sporadic at-bats.

Here’s a look at how O’Hearn performed against and without the shift in 2022, and how he compares to other Royals hitters who were heavily shifted against.

As Royals fans can see in the chart above, the shift had a counter-productive effect against some Royals hitters. For example, Michael Massey and Nick Pratto actually hit better against the shift than without the shift. But for O’Hearn, he was 72 points better against non-shifts than shifted defenses in 2022.

And his spray chart from last year seems to confirm that possibility, especially when one sees all the gray on the right side of the field (which are outs):

With the shift being modified and limited, it is possible that O’Hearn could have an actual wOBA that is closer, or perhaps even better, than his xwOBA, which was far from that case last season.

What Could Hold Olivares and O’Hearn Back?

On a hitting end, the case can certainly be made that Olivares and O’Hearn are worth keeping on the Royals roster in some capacity for the upcoming 2023 season. In fact, they also offer more upside than Hunter Dozier, especially when one compares his Statcast metrics to Olivares and O’Hearn from a season ago, via Fangraphs:

The primary issue with both Olivares and O’Hearn is that they do not really have a position right now on the defensive end, though Olivares certainly will have more opportunities to prove himself in 2023.

Unfortunately, the data isn’t favorable in Olivares’ case. He was four outs below average in the outfield last year, and had an actual catch percentage five percent below his expected catch percentage, which is a discouraging trend.

A concern with Olivares’ defensive outlook stemmed from last season, as manager Mike Matheny seemed to be intent on playing Olivares in right field. On one end, that makes sense on paper considering his arm strength (his arm strength ranked in the 82nd percentile, according to Statcast). Unfortunately, he was four outs below average in right field last season, which can be seen in this responsible plays graphic via Savant:

It will be interesting to see if Quatraro will keep Olivares in right field like Matheny did, or if he will move him to left field, where Olivares has been a much better fit metrically (though to be fair, he doesn’t have a huge sample there). On the flip side, the Royals may need to move Melendez to the outfield more permanently this season, and it would make more sense for Melendez to be in left field than right, especially considering Kauffman’s spacious dimensions.

Either way, when Olivares does play the outfield, he will need to be paired with excellent defensive outfielders like Taylor, Waters, Kyle Isbel, and Nate Eaton to make up for his defensive inefficiencies. And unfortunately, that could limit Olivares’ playing time outlook unless his bat REALLY progresses in 2023 (i.e. that double-digit launch angle comes to fruition).

As for O’Hearn, he has pretty much accepted his role as a primary pinch hitter and bench bat, which isn’t always easy for players at the Major League level. He also posted a 176 wRC+ in the role last year, which is pretty incredible, even if it is a small sample.

His performance in the limited role earned him rave reviews from former manager Matheny last season, and it will be interesting to see if Quatraro will feel the same about O’Hearn and his ability in that role in 2023.

Of course, it is unlikely that the 176 wRC+ will be sustainable long-term, so it will be interesting to see if O’Hearn can improve in the limited “non-pinch hit” opportunities that he’ll get next year, especially at the beginning of the season.

Pretty much all of O’Hearn’s value comes from his bat, as he was worth -2 OAA in right field last season (though he was slightly better at first with a +1 OAA, according to Savant). In order to stick on this roster, he’ll need to hit, or the boobirds on Twitter (Royals fans rarely boo their own at the K) may get even worse in 2023, especially if it comes in the way of playing time for Pratto.

That being said, while Royals fans may have their feelings about O’Hearn coming back (I know I do), the fact of the matter is that $1.4 million is such a minuscule amount in the grand scheme of things. Based on current trends, one WAR for a position player is roughly worth $5.38 million dollars.

Hence, even if O’Hearn produces a 0.5 fWAR, he would be worth $2.69 million, which would nearly be double what the Royals are paying him.

A solid first half for O’Hearn could also make him an enticing trade candidate at the Trade Deadline, especially considering his low price tag. Getting some kind of prospect return for a player costing $1.4 million is a win-win for both teams, and safe to say, O’Hearn could benefit from playing in a more hitter-friendly ballpark as well.

There certainly are critics of O’Hearn, and I get that he doesn’t (or shouldn’t) fit in the Royals’ long-term plans.

But his batted ball data and expected metrics hint at O’Hearn’s potential to be a solid pinch hitter and utility bat off the bench who could play sporadically every 4-5 days and still help the Royals’ lineup.

And that’s not a bad asset for Quatraro and JJ Picollo to have, especially for under $1.5 million.

Photo Credit: Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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