Should O’Hearn be a mainstay in the Royals lineup? (and what does this mean for Duda?)

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.


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Photo credit: Finger Lake Times

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.

Can the Royals Surprise the AL Central? (Even if they right now are in last)

The Kansas City Royals, are 12-23 after their 5-2 walk-off loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. To say expectations were low for this team going into 2019 may be an understatement: after all…this is a club that was coming off a 104-loss season, a far cry from their World Series championship run four years ago, and also lost their franchise player (Salvador Perez) to Tommy John surgery before the season even started. Safe to say, it’s not out of the question to think that most Kansas Citians were looking more forward to the NFL Draft and the Chiefs offseason rather than the Royals 2019 campaign.

Which is a shame, because even though this team hasn’t really performed record-wise, you can’t help but get that feeling that this is spunky Royals bunch who may be able to compete and surprise in the AL Central division. The 2018 Royals were a “no man’s land” bunch that was stuck in a time warp, thinking that it was 2016 and they still could compete for a playoff spot. That is not the case anymore: the Royals are in full rebuild mode, shedding veterans like Jason Hammel, Alcides Escobar, and Paulo Orlando for younger guys within the farm system like Ryan O’Hearn and Kelvin Gutierrez to name a few. And in the transition, we have seen the positive and negatives of Dayton Moore’s approach in 2019.

At the very least, it’s easy to think that this Royals team will entertain more than last year’s bunch. Let’s take a look at why there is room for optimism, even after a crushing series loss to the division rival Tigers over the past weekend.


The offense is already better than last year…

Last season, the Royals were pretty punchless at the plate. They ranked 24th in the league in wRC+ with 88, which is 12 runs below average, and also ranked 25th in wOBA at .303. While they were entertaining on the basepaths (they ranked 6th in the league in stolen bases with 117), it didn’t necessarily lead to more runs on the basepaths, as they ranked 26th in BsR (baserunning runs above average) at negative-7.4. Combine this with lousy pitching (they ranked second-to-last in pitching WAR), and it makes sense why the Royals topped the 100-loss mark in 2018.

Now, the pitching for the Royals is still an Achilles heel in 2019, as they rank 25th in pitching WAR (1.4) and 23rd in team FIP (4.60). But, the offense has actually been better than expected, even though they lost All-Stars Perez and Mike Moustakas from a season ago. They rank 16th in wRC+ at 99, just one run below average, and 11 points better than a season ago. Their .320 wOBA is also an improvement from last year, as it is 17 points better than last year, and ranks 17th currently in the league. When it comes down to understanding what Dayton Moore needs to fix, the offense is actually low on that priority list.

And what has carried the Royals offense this year thus far? Career renaissances from outfielder Alex Gordon, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, and utility extraordinaire Hunter Dozier. Gordon has displayed an incredible approach at the plate so far in 2019 (9.2 BB% and 10.6 K%) which has resulted in a .390 wOBA and 146 wRC+ to go along with six home runs and 27 RBI in what may be his last season in Royals blue and maybe as a Major Leaguer in general. Mondesi still is a free swinger (27 K%), but he hasn’t let it hurt him too much, as he has a .346 wOBA and 116 wRC+ to go along with four home runs and a team-high 10 stolen bases.

However, Dozier is the biggest revelation of them all. Dozier’s numbers are insane: .455 wOBA, 189 wRC+, .346 batting average, .308 ISO, and seven home runs. And he is doing this while playing without a true position: he has rotated between third, first, outfield and DH this season. Dozier has always been a top prospect in the Royals system in the past, and injuries certainly have slowed down his development in the past. However, there were many fans that felt that Dozier would be better off in another organization and that he was done after another “disappointing” season in 2018. Well, Dozier has not only proven them wrong, but he is actually giving the Royals and the “loyal” fanbase hope that they have another franchise player on their hands in the mold of Eric Hosmer, Gordon, and Moustakas. Only the difference now is that they will have him for at least a few more seasons.


The Royals are a terror on the basepaths

It’s kind of the same deal from a year ago if you look at the whole picture: the Royals lead the league in stolen bases (34), but it hasn’t led to much baserunning runs (0.4 above average). But for a team that was so mediocre offensively a year ago, manager Ned Yost’s free-wheeling approach on the basepaths definitely is an advantage that separates the Royals from the rest of the league. The lineup is loaded with speed: Mondesi, Whit Merrifield, and Billy Hamilton are all guys who can swipe 40 or more stolen bases this year (they have 10, 6 and 8 so far, respectively). And on the bench, Terrence Gore, who was strictly pinch running material prior to this year, has actually shown some life with the bat (.416 wOBA in 21 plate appearances). With already four stolen bases, it’s possible to see Gore perhaps get 20-25 stolen bases despite not being a regular player, which is an extraordinary weapon for Yost to have.

The Royals are showing more pop in the lineup than a year ago, which is surprising without Perez, who hit over 20 homers last year and was a regular in the 4-5 hole. Now, while Gordon and Dozier have displayed improvement from a year ago, we are just over a month into the season, and it is possible that both those guys will experience some regression as we hit the dog days of summer. That being said, the Royals can make up for any Gordon and Dozier regression with their depth of speed, and they’ll be in better shape if Hamilton can pick it up at the plate (he has a .250 wOBA and 51 wRC+) as we enter the summer months. That may be hard to imagine (he is coming off a down year in Cincinnati), but considering how much Ned likes to run, Hamilton could help this Royals club (and his own stat line) immensely if he can creep his OBP up another 20-30 points in the next month or so (which isn’t an easy task…but it doesn’t hurt to dream about).


The AL Central still is questionable

The Indians may be in trouble: they’ve underperformed this year (18-14), and now they may not have ace Corey Kluber for most of the season. Though they took 2 out of 3 from the Royals this weekend, the Tigers are a Miguel Cabrera injury/trade away from hitting the skids and bottoming out, as they too are in clear rebuilding mode and emphasizing a youth movement. And the White Sox, though sporting some offensive firepower with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson (who got in his own dustup with the Royals...gotta love the low-key Royals-White Sox rivalry), have a plethora of pitching issues that will keep them from being seriously competitive this season (they rank 25th in FIP).

As you can see, the AL Central is up for the taking, with the Twins surprising and leading the division at 20-12 entering Sunday. But, the Twins are coming off a down year, have a new, unproven manager in Rocco Baldelli, and are still mediocre when it comes to pitching (they rank 18th in FIP). Now, their offense is legit (6th in WAR), and their lineup is flat out dangerous with Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, Nelson Cruz, and a rejuvenated Byron Buxton, just to name a few. But unless the Twins make a serious upgrade to their pitching mid-season, they will be vulnerable to the rest of the division.

And that includes the Royals…after all, their Pythagorean win-loss isn’t all that far off from the other teams in the division.


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Hunter Dozier is having a career year; and he could be the spark the Royals need this summer (Photo credit: MLB Daily Dish)

Realistically, the Royals will be a long shot to do anything in the division or make a run at the Wild Card. Their pitching is bad. And if you don’t believe me, think about this: Homer Bailey, who went 1-14 a year ago, is their best starting pitcher so far this year according to WAR (0.7) and FIP (3.77). The bullpen is a mess, as Yost has failed to find much stability in the late innings, and the Ian Kennedy “trying to be Wade Davis” experiment has gone through its fair share of ups and downs this year (he has a 0.84 FIP, though that will probably go up after giving up the game-winning homer today). Unless Danny Duffy regains his stuff after missing most of the year so far due to injury, this pitching staff has a bleak outlook for 2019. And as we know…it’s hard for a team to compete without much pitching.

But the Royals have a shot. This is more of a “glass half-full” club compared to a year ago, and it will be interesting to see how the Royals faithful get behind them. They won’t lose 100 plus games this year (as long as they stay healthy), but they are still a couple of years from seriously competing, which may deflate Royals fans who were spoiled from the 2013-2016 run of success. But if this team can get their pitching to inch toward average, and if the offense can continue to produce, it’s conceivable to see a “hot” May or June from this club, and if that happens, then it’s possible to see the fans get behind this team and push them toward unexpected success, just like in 2013 when the Royals surprised and won 86 games out of nowhere.

And we all know what 2013 set up for the next two seasons…wishful thinking, I know, but it’s worth dreaming about, right?