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O'Hearn set to prove he belongs at first base

@FlannyMLB
March 15, 2019

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Royals first baseman Ryan O’Hearn hit the Major League scene last year with a large bang. O’Hearn, 25, got called up on the last day of July and opened eyes around the league, ripping 12 home runs in two months, and posting a .950 OPS.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Royals first baseman Ryan O’Hearn hit the Major League scene last year with a large bang.

O’Hearn, 25, got called up on the last day of July and opened eyes around the league, ripping 12 home runs in two months, and posting a .950 OPS.

There’s little doubt that O’Hearn came into this year’s camp with the first-base job as his to lose. Actually, O’Hearn took that sentiment one step further.

“I think it’s my job,” O’Hearn said, confidently. “I mean, if you don’t think that way as a player, what are you doing here? It’s not my decision to make but in my mind, I feel like it is my job.”

Manager Ned Yost would agree, though he has mentioned that the left-handed-hitting O’Hearn could be part of a “loose platoon” with Hunter Dozier, who could split time between third base and first, perhaps giving O’Hearn a rest against particularly tough left-handers.

O’Hearn, though, is eager to jettison the reputation that he can’t hit lefties. He hit .271 in 85 at-bats against lefties at Triple-A Omaha last season, and hasn’t been especially overwhelmed by them throughout the Minors.

But there is a sizable gap between left-handed pitchers in the Minors and those in the Majors.

“There’s a gap between any pitcher in the Minors from those in the big leagues,” O’Hearn said, smiling. “But I’ve always hit lefties in the Minors, and maybe it got in my head a little last year. I’ll come with a fresh outlook this season.”

O’Hearn was just 4-for-37 (.108) against lefties after his call up. Getting comfortable against them was the focus for O’Hearn this offseason, when he played winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

O’Hearn also focused on his defense, which at times was shaky in 2018; particularly his throwing.

“Some throws, not all of them,” Yost noted. “The consistency wasn’t what you needed it to be to have an elite-like defense.”

O’Hearn has made numerous above-average plays this spring, whether it’s starting a 3-6-1 double play or the 3-1 exchange. He has also made several excellent scoops at first base.

All of that is important to a team such as the Royals, who put defense at a premium.

“How teams value defense changes from organization to organization,” Yost said. “Some don’t value defense [at first base]. We do. It saves your pitchers pitches. It saves your infielders errors.

“There’s no telling with someone like [Eric Hosmer], in terms of how many runs he saved us, as opposed to having Billy Butler there all those years. The runs would have been 100-plus saved. And thousands of pitches. Hos was such a pitcher saver, with his picks and his stretches and his ability to stay on the bag and stretch up like he was 10 feet tall. We value that.”

Yost has seen the defensive improvement in O’Hearn.

“He’s worked hard this winter, this spring,” Yost said. “I’ve seen improvement. You get better through repetition. He’s gotten better like Hunter Dozier got better at third last year.”

At the plate, O’Hearn has picked up where he left off in 2018. A recent hot streak has raised his average to .324, and he has eight RBIs through 34 at-bats.

“He’s locked in,” Yost said.

Yet as confident as O’Hearn is, he knows he still has much to learn.

“There’s still question marks,” O’Hearn said. “I only played two months. But I think I proved I have value, hopefully for years to come.”

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @FlannyMLB.