Swings and Takes: Big Swings, Better Takes

Stop me if you have heard this before, but scouting and player evaluation are very difficult. This is especially true in what could colloquially be called the Player Development Renaissance, in which players and organizations no longer accept player limitations in the way they used to. There are better tools and higher levels of human capital investments in improving performance than ever before. This landscape means that scouting reports on players expire faster than ever. This has been demonstrated on the pitching side recently by Paul Skenes. Skenes, the number one overall pick by the Pirates out of LSU, came into professional baseball with a lot of buildup but also some questions regarding his fastball shape/effectiveness. He has made those questions close to irrelevant by developing a “Splinker”, a 94 MPH hybrid between a sinker and splitter that has become the second best splitter in baseball so far by RV/100 pitches (4.4), only behind Nick Sandlin. Today we are diving deep into a hitter who has done his own about-face, defying a scouting report that he consistently validated throughout most of his career to date.

Ryan O'Barrels 

Ryan O'Hearn had a pretty simple scouting report when he first entered the Major Leagues with the Royals: plus-plus power, hit hard consistently, walked at an above-average rate, limited by lack of contact ability, platoon concerns, and lack of defensive or baserunning value. After a great debut, hitting .262/.353/.597 with a 153 wRC+ in 2018, O'Hearn spent the next 4 seasons looking like he may have a short MLB career, as his highest wRC+ from 2019-2022 was 71 in 2022. First basemen that produce 30-35 percent below league average offensively are not a hot commodity, and O'Hearn was DFA’d in the 2023 offseason by the Royals. 

It seemed like on the surface the right move after 4 years of non-performance, but the Orioles saw an opportunity, and were able to acquire him in January for cash considerations. O'Hearn did one thing consistently great: hit the ball hard. His hard-hit rate, even from 2019-2022, was always around 7 percent or better than league average, fluctuating between 43%-48% where the league average is around 36%, leading his xWOBACON (expected wOBA on contact) to always vastly outpace his wOBA. In a platoon role for the Orioles in 2023, O'Hearn’s results finally lived up to those expected numbers, as his hard-hit rate reached a career high (51.5%), right below Mike Trout on the leaderboards (51.9%), which along with a career low K rate (22.3%) lead to a .289/.322/.480 triple slash line. 

O'Hearn at this point was largely the same guy he had been for most of his career, with slight improvements across the board leading to career best performance, but 2024 has been a different animal: O'Hearn has kept his power while performing as one of the best contact hitters in all of baseball. O'Hearn’s strikeout rate, at 10.2%, is third best in baseball among all hitters with at least 200 PAs, only behind Luis Arraez and Steven Kwan and right ahead of Mookie Betts and Nico Hoerner. O’Hearn being on a contact list with those guys does not make sense within the context of the rest of his career, as he has always been a guy to strike out well above 20% of the time.

Often when a hitter makes a change this drastic in profile there is a noticeable swing change behind it, but that doesn't appear to be the case here. Here are two O’Hearn single swings, one from 2023 and one from 2024:

O’Hearn Swings