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A Closer Look at Ryan O’Hearn’s Hot Start

How Ryan O'Hearn's improved approach has led to more production.

After a tenure with the Kansas City Royals filled with plenty of peaks and valleys, concluding with him producing a 71 wRC+ over 145 plate appearances and being designated for assignment in 2022, Ryan O’Hearn was acquired by the Baltimore Orioles in January of 2023. Since joining the Orioles, O’Hearn has done nothing but produce offensively, producing a 118 wRC+ over 368 plate appearances in a bounce-back season last year, and is currently off to a scorching hot start to 2024, producing a 172 wRC+ over his first 64 plate appearances of the season. This article will examine the changes Ryan O’Hearn has made to his offensive approach early in the season, and determine whether this hot start will be sustainable throughout a full season.

 

Plate Discipline + Bat-to-Ball Ability

 

One notable change that O’Hearn has made to his offensive approach this season has been his plate discipline. In the past, O’Hearn has consistently been considered slightly below-average as it pertains to plate discipline, with his tendency to make poor swing decisions on balls off the plate leading to a O-Swing% around 34% over the past three seasons.

 

As shown by the rolling chart above, O’Hearn has considerably reduced his chase rate early in the season, lowering his O-Swing% down to 21.2%. Not only does a lower chase rate allow for a hitter to draw more walks, but it also typically correlates with an increase in selected aggression, indicating that O’Hearn is placing more focus on taking on swings on pitches he makes hard contact on. So far this season, O’Hearn has increased his walk rate from 4.1% to 10.9%, indicating the improvements in his plate discipline have translated to an improved ability to get on base.

 

Ryan O’Hearn: Plate Discipline (2022-24)

 

As shown by the table above, O’Hearn has also made significant progress in his bat-to-ball ability this season, lowering his strikeout rate from 22.3% to 9.4%. This is a massive improvement, but the underlying metrics indicate that this reduction in strikeout rate may not be sustainable. O’Hearn’s swinging strike rate has decreased from 10.3% to 7.8% this season, which does provide evidence to the notion that O’Hearn has improved in limiting his ability to strikeout. However, I do believe that a 2.5% improvement in his swinging strike rate does not lead to a 13.1% decrease in strikeout rate, and I would expect this to regress to around 20% throughout a full season (assuming the swinging strike rate remains constant). Nevertheless, O’Hearn has made notable progress in his bat-to-ball ability which combined with his improved plate discipline has allowed him to get to the most of his power, produce more hard contact, and create more offensive production for the Baltimore Orioles this season.

 

Batted Ball Profile

 

O’Hearn has also made notable improvements to his batted ball profile early in the season, which has allowed him to effectively get to more of his raw power in-game. Since the beginning of his professional career, O’Hearn has always displayed plus raw power, posting a hard hit rate of at least 43% each season of his Major League career and frequently producing max exit velocities of 110 mph or greater. While this hard contact ability raises O’Hearn’s potential ceiling as an offensive player, he has had trouble in the past lifting the ball in the air with consistency.

 

Ryan O’Hearn: Batted Ball Quality (2022-24)

 

As shown by the table above, O’Hearn has been able to hit the ball in the air with more frequency this season, improving his fly ball rate from 36.3% to 43.1%. This has allowed him to make the most of his hard contact, with his barrel rate increasing from 10.1% to 17.6%. This is a classic example of a player who has shown the ability to make hard contact learning to lift the ball in the air with more consistency, resulting in four home runs and a .579 slugging percentage throughout the early days of the season for O’Hearn. Expected statistics also believe in this improved batted ball profile, with O’Hearn currently producing an xwOBA of .530, the best in all of Major League Baseball.

Hitting the ball in the air with more frequency has been one of the keys to O’Hearn’s success this season, but as the saying goes “If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it”. Being able to manipulate your batted ball profile to produce more optimal contact requires plus plate discipline and plus batted-ball skills, which ties back to the first improvement that O’Hearn made this offseason. By improving his plate discipline and his ability to make contact, O’Hearn has been able to be more selective at the plate, allowing him to focus on taking swings at pitches that he can drive in the air for hard contact.

This relationship is¬†evident in the rolling graph above, as there appears to be a relationship over the past season and a half between O’Hearn’s O-Swing% and his isolated power. O’Hearn has also run a low BABIP of .255 so far this season, and given the fact that he is still not considered to be an extreme fly ball hitter (I would classify this as around 50% FB), I would expect for him to experience some positive regression in terms of his “batted ball luck.” Overall, improving his batted ball profile has allowed O’Hearn to tap into his raw power more consistently, which has allowed him to produce very impressive offensive production to begin the 2024 season.

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

The improvements that Ryan O’Hearn has made to his plate discipline and batted ball profile have allowed him to get off to a scorching hot start to the 2024 season, and I believe that these changes are likely to be sustainable throughout a full season. The improvements in plate discipline should allow for O’Hearn to continue drawing more walks throughout the remainder of the season and this improved eye for laying off pitches out of the strike zone will force pitchers to pitch to him in the zone, allowing for O’Hearn to focus on swinging at pitches that allow him to hit the ball in the air for power. While I do believe the strikeout rate will regress, the improvements in swinging strike rate do indicate to me that O’Hearn should see an improvement in strikeout rate from last season.

O’Hearn is still only 64 plate appearances into the season, so it is wise to proceed with caution in terms of making any definitive statements on the improvements O’Hearn has shown, but I am very impressed with his performance to start the season. The main question regarding Ryan O’Hearn’s future in the Orioles lineup is playing time, as O’Hearn is strictly a platoon bat only hitting against right-handed hitters. Baltimore will also need a place in the lineup to play Coby Mayo and Heston Kjerstad in the near future, and it is possible that one of them will play at first base or designated hitter, taking up a spot that would previously filled by O’Hearn. I would be stunned if Baltimore pulled O’Hearn out of the lineup with the way he has hit at the beginning of the season, but he might find himself a quick hook if Mayo and/or Kjerstad are showing a need for more playing time. In conclusion, I have been very impressed with the changes Ryan O’Hearn has made to his offensive approach this season, and I believe these changes are sustainable and should lead him to continued success throughout the remainder of the 2024 season.

 

Adam Salorio

Adam Salorio is a Going Deep Writer at Pitcher List, and a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. When he's not talking about or researching baseball, you can probably catch him at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

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