On Tuesday night, a mere hours after the Baltimore Orioles had announced that Ryan Mountcastle would be placed on the 10-day injured list with vertigo symptoms, Ryan O'Hearn launched an opposite-field home run into the Orioles bullpen. The home run was O'Hearn's second in as many games and propelled the Orioles to a six-run third inning and an 11-6 win over the rival Toronto Blue Jays.
Could Ryan O'Hearn continue to wrestle playing time away from Ryan Mountcastle?
With Mountcastle on the injured list and struggling when healthy, and O'Hearn tearing the cover off the ball, some questions have arisen about whether or not Mountcastle is the first baseman of the future like many assumed he would be and if O'Hearn could take over that role. In an admittedly small sample size, O'Hearn has hit significantly better than Mountcastle this season but there is a reason why the Royals DFA'd him this offseason and why Mountcastle has such high future prospects when he is healthy.
Coming into Wednesday night, O'Hearn is hitting an impressive .319/.368/.623 with a 171 OPS+ in 76 plate appearances and 25 games with the O's. The home run Tuesday night was his fifth of the season to go with six doubles meaning that half of his 22 hits have gone for extra bases. In these 25 games, O'Hearn has shown significant improvements from his time with the Royals where he batted .219/.293/.390 with a 83 OPS+ in 342 games over five seasons.
The only positive offensive season in Kansas City came his rookie year in 2018 where he slashed .262/.353/.597 with a 154 OPS+ in 44 games. Similar to this season, Ryan showed off impressive power in limited time with 12 home runs in those 44 games. However, O'Hearn never had an OPS+ with the Royals in a season after that which led to his release after Nick Pratto emerged as a Major-League caliber first baseman in Kansas City.
One positive trend for O'Hearn is the reemergence of his power this season. Ryan does not provide much value if he is not hitting home runs and extra base hits at a high rate and the past few seasons in Kansas City were a struggle for him in that department. Last season in particular, O'Hearn hit only one home run in 145 plate appearances with eight total extra bases. His isolated power dipped to a career low .082 in 67 games.
However, it seemed that hard luck played a major role in his power struggles. Despite having his worst power season of his career, he had his highest career expected slugging percentage since 2018 and he also had his highest career hard hit percentage. Playing in a hitters ballpark like Kauffman Stadium certainly played into that bad luck and moving to a lefties paradise like Camden Yards has helped.
O'Hearn also mentioned in an interview with Kevin Brown and Dave Johnson on MASN that the Orioles' hitting coaches have adjusted his batting stance to help him drive the ball at a higher angle which has also been shown in the results. Since 2019, O'Hearn has not had a season launch angle above 14.3 degrees with the Royals. However, in his first year with the Orioles his launch angle has improved to 17.5 degrees which proves that minor adjustments in his stance have made an impact.
The main things working against O'Hearn is his age and lack of success in recent seasons. Ryan turns 30 in July and came into this season with -2.7 career WAR according to BaseballReference and -1.4 according to Fangraphs. Regardless of what the future holds, O'Hearn has been a feel good story for one of the best teams in baseball while their usual first baseman struggles with health issues and his play on the field.
Ryan Mountcastle is in the midst of his worst offensive season with a .227/.264/.421 slash line and a 88 OPS+. His lack of plate discipline has been an issue throughout his career but particularly notable as his walk rate has dropped to 4.6% from a career 7%. This drop has caused his horrific on base percentage at .264.
His offensive struggles gives him a 0.0 WAR on the season according to BaseballReference and -0.2 according to Fangraphs. Needless to say, it has been a rough season for Mountcastle offensively and his lack of plate discipline combined with the outfield dimensions at Camden Yards limits his offensive potential.
Given his struggles and limited offensive potential, it is time for the Orioles to at least think about moving on from Mounty even when he is healthy. O'Hearn is certainly an option if he continues to rake and work on improvements with the hitting coaches in Baltimore. Another possibility at first base is to move Anthony Santander to first once Colton Cowser receives his long-awaited promotion.
Regardless of what decisions the Orioles make moving forward, there is no doubt that O'Hearn has forced Brandon Hyde and company to at least think about changes with the offensive core. Mountcastle still has a lot to offer at the plate but circumstances have made it more difficult for him to make a huge impact in Baltimore.