Vahe Gregorian

Year after declaring ‘This is my time,’ Ryan O’Hearn seeks encore to breakout season

Royals Ryan O’Hearn building on confidence in his swing

Kansas City Royals first baseman Ryan O'Hearn gained confidence in his swing last year with the help the teams coaches. This year he expects to build on that confidence along with the talent he sees in his teammates.
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Kansas City Royals first baseman Ryan O'Hearn gained confidence in his swing last year with the help the teams coaches. This year he expects to build on that confidence along with the talent he sees in his teammates.

The second you get comfortable is the second you get passed up, Ryan O’Hearn said at Royals FanFest last month.

And the “wow factor” of finally emerging in the major leagues last year with the Royals definitely hasn’t faded, he said Thursday.

Be all that as it may, after a compelling late-season debut highlighted by 12 home runs, 10 doubles and 30 RBIs in 170 plate appearances, O’Hearn will tell you that mentally he feels like a “completely different player than I did a year ago.”

Because now he knows he belongs and has conviction about being an intriguing part of the Royals future — a stature he could only have guessed he might occupy before he seized the pivotal opportunity after his call-up on July 31.

“ ‘This is my time,’ ” he told himself then … and made it so.

Flash forward to the precious present, in which he looms as a key complementary variable in an offensive equation predicated around speedsters in need of being ushered home.

The trajectory of this Royals’ season hinges on many questions that include O’Hearn’s ability to approximate his 2018 pace of production and capacity to grow as a first baseman, and there are reasonable predictive models that support opposing cases on the sustainability of that pleasant surprise.

As evidence it was no fluke, though, the Royals point to the consistent hard-hit ratio that led them to bring him up from Class AAA Omaha despite a mere .391 slugging percentage with 11 home runs in 100 games (one fewer than he hit in 44 games with the Royals).

For all the sophisticated metrics in the game today, the bottom line for the move was “he was smoking the ball,” manager Ned Yost said then.

And he kept doing just that with the Royals, the basis for general manager Dayton Moore suggesting that the left-handed-hitting O’Hearn figures to “crush” right-handed pitching this season.

Meanwhile, O’Hearn is hungry to demonstrate that he’s more than a platoon player despite hitting just .108 for the Royals last year against left-handers..

“Which freaked me out, too, trust me,” said O’Hearn, who cited past successes against lefties and added, “I don’t think I’m a platoon player by any means, and I’m ready to prove that.”

No one can know how that will play out for the eighth-round selection in the 2014 draft, but say this for him: O’Hearn proved something substantial last year that came with the encouragement of some Royals royalty.

He apparently took George Brett to heart when Brett told him his goal should be to never return to Omaha.

And after O’Hearn’s exhilarating home run in his second major-league at-bat in a 4-2 win over the White Sox, he texted a thank you to Mike Sweeney, the Royals’ special assistant to baseball operations who had counseled him through a recent slump that had left O’Hearn wondering if he would ever quite make it.

It’s funny about baseball. Within a span of months, O’Hearn soared from that psychological crossroads to a distinct sense of arrival.

Maybe he couldn’t pinpoint the date, but he could zoom in on the event: ninth inning back-to-back home runs (along with Hunter Dozier) off Cleveland closer Cody Allen on Aug. 24 to beat the eventual American League Central champion.

“I knew I could compete leading up to that game, had some success leading up to that game,” O’Hearn said.

After that, though …

“I kind of realized, ‘Alright, we can do this. We can compete in this division. I can compete in this league,’” he said. “That was a huge confidence builder for me.”

What was believed to be the first time in major-league history that two rookies hit successive home runs in the ninth inning or later to win a game ended a five-game losing streak and sparked a 20-14 final flourish for a team that had been 38-90.

This season is a tale unto itself, of course, and how much of a factor O’Hearn can be remains to be seen.

But he understands that this is his window, which is why he dedicated his offseason, including playing in the Dominican Republic, to working against left-handed pitching. He understands that to succeed he’ll have to win many a “cat-and-mouse” game of adjustments against pitchers who have a book on him now.

Most of all, he understands that he belongs ... but that for this to still be his time he’s only as good as his next at-bats.

“I’m not just happy to be here,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s do something with this.’ ”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.