O'Hearn pivots after offseason 'gut check'

First baseman tweaks swing, aims to absorb knowledge from Santana

March 5th, 2021

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- In the second inning on Thursday night, Reds starter Sonny Gray, a two-time All-Star with two top-10 Cy Young Award finishes, delivered a two-strike fastball up and in to Royals left-handed hitter . It’s a pitch that O’Hearn knows has been a weakness in his past.

As the pitch came in, O’Hearn maintained his backside, pulled his hands in and swung. The ball jumped off his bat and carried quickly over the right-field wall for his second homer in three Cactus League games. It was exactly the kind of swing he’s been working on since the end of last season.

“What’s been telling for me is the ball’s flight,” O’Hearn said Thursday. “I can’t think of one time I was able to turn on it and get the ball up in the air with backspin like that on a heater up and in. So that’s a positive. It’s exciting and makes me think there are good things to come. I feel good with where I’m at, I feel good with my swing.”

O’Hearn, 27, is two seasons removed from a rookie campaign that made him the favorite to be the Royals’ first baseman when Eric Hosmer left. O'Hearn homered off James Shields in his second big league at-bat in 2018, finishing the season with 12 home runs and 30 RBIs in 44 games, but struggled in 2019, finding himself back in Triple-A Omaha. He adjusted in Omaha, but couldn’t carry it back to Kansas City and finished with a .195/.281/.369 line in 2019. O’Hearn hit .195 with only two home runs in 42 games last season.

At the beginning of the offseason, it looked as if first base was going to be a Spring Training roster battle between O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom, with Hunter Dozier moving to third base after the Royals non-tendered Maikel Franco. But then the Royals signed Carlos Santana this offseason, locking up first base and a middle-of-the-order bat for the next two years.

Royals manager Mike Matheny called O’Hearn and McBroom right before the Royals signed Santana to let them know what was coming and what they can take from it. The skipper knew it would bother them some -- both want to be in the starting lineup -- but he advised them to not let it sit with them for too long.

That’s what O’Hearn is trying to do this spring. What role he will have in 2021 is still to be determined, but he’s likely still vying for a bench spot to start the season, with his performance dictating how much he’ll be used.

“If I just sat up here and told you guys that it didn’t faze me, I’d be lying,” O’Hearn said. “There’s a human aspect to it, and I want to be the guy. The last couple years, things haven’t gone exactly the way that I maybe would have wrote them up. … It’s hard not to, but I try to stay away from playing GM as much as I can, as much as I could all offseason. Especially when they signed Santana, it’s definitely a gut check, but like skip said, you can’t stay there for long.

“If you stay there for long and let it eat you up, nothing positive’s going to come out of it. It’s exciting for me to be around a guy like that who’s done it for so long and a lot of things he does are things that I want to do for years. So I just looked at it as an opportunity to learn from a guy who knows what he’s doing, and that part’s exciting.”

Part of the struggles for O’Hearn have been those fastballs up and in. From 2019-20, he’s hit just .174 on inside and elevated fastballs, according to Statcast. In the top inside corner of the zone, he’s hit .222 over the past two seasons, compared to .389 on the top outside and .300 on the bottom inside.

“I recognize my weaknesses where I was getting eaten up, trying to get to the ball, especially fastballs inside and elevated fastballs,” O’Hearn said. “Figuring out how to get those balls in the air. The exit velo’s been there, so if I could figure out how to get that and turn that into a backspin, ball in the air to right field, I’d feel good about that.”

O’Hearn started working with Royals hitting coach John Mabry at the end of last season to work on those weaknesses. He spent a lot of time in the batting cage with a pitching machine to fine tune the mechanics of his swing, along with staying compact and letting the pitches come to him instead of getting “antsy,” as he described it.

His comfort in the box is showing so far this spring.

“He’s maintaining his backside much better,” Matheny said. “And it’s not easy to pull your hands inside and have the ball carry like it did. Then starts being confidence, and that confidence seems to just kind of create more opportunities for things to happen. He’s a good hitter. He really is. Feels like sometimes you’re trying to convince him of that because he’s so hard on himself. … That drive and that emotion makes up who he is. It’s just how can we harness it. And that’s going to come.”