O'Brien primed to fill power void for Marlins

March 9th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A small sample size has opened up a huge opportunity for  to become the Marlins' everyday right fielder.

Last September as a callup, O’Brien seized the moment and opened eyes in the organization that his power potential is worth being given a chance to develop.

In the final month of 2018, the 28-year-old outfielder/first baseman had a slash line of .273/.338/.530. The staff really took notice with his four home runs and 10 RBIs. 

Last Sept. 18, the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder blistered a home run to left field off Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg. And on Sept. 9 at Citi Field, O'Brien went to the opposite field on an elevated 94 mph fastball off Mets lefty Steven Matz.

O’Brien added a 406 foot laser shot on Sept. 25 off Austen Williams of the Nationals, that had an exit velocity of 109.7 mph, according to Statcast.

“It’s honestly pretty simple for me, if you look at it from a data standpoint,” O’Brien said. “It’s cut down on the strikeouts and increase the contact rate. By doing that, good things are going to happen.”

That’s the catch.

There’s no questioning the impact O’Brien can make when he connects. On 45 batted balls in play last season, his average exit velocity was 92.1 mph.

But throughout his career, he’s dealt with a high volume of strikeouts and swings and misses.

O’Brien has struggled putting the bat on the ball this spring. In his first nine Grapefruit League games, he went 2-for-23 (.087) with 14 strikeouts.

“I’m not necessarily concerned with the results over 20 or 30 at-bats,” O’Brien said. “I’m more concerned with the results over 100 at-bats over a 162-game season.”

That’s completely fair, because you don’t want to put too much weight on spring stats, especially in the first two weeks of games when players are just getting back into playing shape.

The Marlins open the regular season on March 28 against the Rockies at Marlins Park, and there are plenty of games remaining for players to find their timing. 

To the Marlins, the raw power O’Brien possesses is worth giving the opportunity to see if he can emerge as a late bloomer.

"He's not a borderline power guy," manager Don Mattingly said. "That he has to absolutely crush it to hit it out of our ballpark. He's a guy who can miss some balls and hit them out of our ballpark. We were a club [last year] who had trouble putting runs on the board in a multiple fashion. We were more of a three hits to get a run in an inning. So having a guy who can take one swing and get you two or three runs home is something nice, if we can get that."

The Marlins ranked last in the Majors in 2018 in home runs (128), slugging percentage (.357) and doubles (222).

A South Florida native and former University of Miami standout, O’Brien was a second-round pick of the Yankees in the 2012 MLB Draft. Miami vice president of player development and scouting Gary Denbo was with the Yanks when O’Brien was in New York’s system.

O’Brien gained some big league experience with the D-backs in 2015-16. 

In 2018, he started off the year in the Dodgers’ system, at Double-A Tulsa. In 31 games, he hit .150 with seven home runs in 31 games. The Marlins acquired O’Brien for cash on June 1, and after starting off at Double-A Jacksonville, he was promoted to Triple-A New Orleans. 

With three Minor League teams in ’18, O’Brien hit 30 home runs with 86 RBIs in 110 games. But his batting average was .216, and he struck out 133 times in 421 plate appearances.

“For me, the main thing is, go up there and make barrel with the baseball,” O’Brien said. “I know the more contact I make with the baseball, the better the results are going to be.”

September was an indicator, as O’Brien reduced the times he swung at pitches out of the zone. According to Statcast, his chase percentage was 24.1 percent, and his contact rate on balls in the zone was 74.8 percent. 

As he prepares for the regular season, O’Brien’s primary focus is transferring what he’s working on with his swing into game situations.

“That’s not my main focus at the plate,” O’Brien said of making hard contact. “It’s obviously something I strive for, but all the little things, the routine, the approach, the plan I have at the plate are going to help me do those things. That’s what I’m doing now is transitioning all of those things into the game.”