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Overreacting to Ryan O’Hearn

Amid a hideous season, the Royals might have found something special. Maybe.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals stink. Their season-long struggle to win may be overshadowed by the incredible dearth of victory in Baltimore, but Kansas City will be a 100-loss team in a division with only one team over .500. One of the silver linings to a bad team, though, is their being able to give chances to seemingly unheralded prospects in hopes they’ll strike gold and find an everyday starter or, sometimes, a star.

Right now, their best player is Whit Merrifield. But over the last month and change, none other than Ryan O’Hearn has carried the Royals offense. It could be nothing, just a middling prospect nobody’s ever heard of running into some pitches. But what if it’s real?

O’Hearn caught my attention as he laid waste to the Cleveland Indians pitching staff the last couple weeks. In six games against the AL Central front-runners, O’Hearn batted .421/.522/1.158 in 23 plate appearances. He looked unstoppable. His numbers for the season aren’t quite as brilliant, but he’s still good for a .991 OPS and a 163 wRC+ to this point. It’s the best mark on the Royals, albeit in a very small period of time.

Since debuting on July 31st, O’Hearn’s wRC+ ranks 23rd in baseball over that stretch (a testament to the outbursts some of the game’s best are having as much as his own incredible start) and he’s doing it in a decently believable way. His BABIP is a mere .275, he’s walking 11.2 percent of the time, and while he’s struck out 27.6 percent of the time – 11th highest in baseball over a full season – the sheer damage he’s doing makes you just want to believe.

To this point, O’Hearn has bopped nine home runs. The most ever hit by a Royals rookie is 19 by Eric Hosmer over 563 plate appearances in 2011. O’Hearn has only stepped to the plate 98 times, and sits seventh on the franchise list in rookie home runs. In fact, that nine dingers places him first among Royals in a whole bunch of arbitrary time frames, from first 100 plate appearances all the way up to 359. At 360 he’s second behind Jon Nunnaly in 1995.

Players go on streaks, and get lucky with some cheap dingers sometimes, but that’s another thing about O’Hearn. He’s averaging 395 feet on those nine home runs, a hint behind Edwin Encarnacion (admittedly an aged Encarnacion) and the quite bicep-ed Eric Thames. Not quite Judge territory, but he gets his fair share of big bombs. This is from a 24-year old, with room to grow, and he’s not nearly as pull-happy as most sluggers, which makes you wonder what he could do if he did swing for the downs. He sprays the ball with considerable power:

That even spray across the stadium, combined with the comfortable distance from the wall those dots show, it’s nothing short of impressive from the young slugger. It’s the kind of spray chart you assume from someone with accidental, silly power like Joey Gallo if he didn’t pull all the time or Khris Davis, or else a supremely brilliant approach at the plate like Miguel Cabrera. At just the century mark in PA’s, we just don’t know with O’Hearn yet.

Look, this is almost definitely a perfect example of a “too early” article. 100 plate appearances is practically nothing. He strikes out a ton. He’s probably not going to average 45 or 50 home runs per full season. But the Royals haven’t had a really impressive first baseman, a 30 or so homer, .900 OPS-type of guy that shoulders the offensive load, since maybe Mike Sweeney’s peak nearly two decades ago, a blip from Bob Hamelin in ‘94 and before that maybe George Brett.

A team as bad as they are, there’s no shame in getting excited about what O’Hearn has done in his young career. So maybe this is just a blip, another random name on the long list of Royals to hit a few homers early in their career and disappear. Or maybe it’s something more. Out of nowhere players are just exciting, and the Royals’ rebuild could use a little jolt like that. Time will tell.

Merritt Rohlfing analyzes the edges of baseball at Beyond the Box Score and raves over the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. It’s all pretty good. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch. That’s pretty good too.