Ryan O’Hearn’s job, most days, is to sit on the bench and wait.
The Orioles’ first baseman gets the occasional start against a right-handed starting pitcher. But usually his role is as a bench bat, a left-handed hitter at manager Brandon Hyde’s disposal to pinch hit against a right-handed reliever.
The role isn’t new for O’Hearn, who spent the past few years in Kansas City as a bench bat for the Royals. It’s not the job O’Hearn wants, but it’s one he’s learned to accept — and even joke about.
“We were joking earlier about if I was gonna get a statue over there,” O’Hearn said, recalling a conversation he had with his former teammates earlier this week. “I said, ‘Yeah, maybe on that bench over there they could put a statue for me.’”
O’Hearn spent the first nine years of his professional career in the Royals organization and most of the previous five campaigns in the big leagues. An eighth-round draft pick in 2014, O’Hearn arrived in the show in July 2018, hitting a two-run homer in his debut.
At first, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound first baseman was a near-everyday starter, but as he began to struggle at the plate, his playing time dwindled. From 2020 to 2022, O’Hearn’s rarely had consistent playing time, starting sporadically versus right-handed pitchers and pinch-hitting.
“I have no regrets from my time in Kansas City,” O’Hearn said. “Obviously, if you’re a storyteller, you’d probably draw it up a little bit differently.”
The 29-year-old is now in the same role with the Orioles. It’s not a glorious job, but O’Hearn said it’s what has allowed him to remain in the big leagues.
“I had to buy into that role over the last few years,” he said. “I think if I wouldn’t have bought into that role, I wouldn’t be on another major league team.”
The Orioles acquired O’Hearn from the Royals this offseason in exchange for cash considerations. They passed him through waivers and brought him to spring training as a nonroster invitee, and he was one of several first basemen/left-handed hitters vying for a spot on the major league roster.
Despite a good spring, O’Hearn opened the year with Triple-A Norfolk. After he crushed minor league pitching for two weeks, as he always has, he was promoted to the Orioles in mid-April. He instantly made an impact, going 2-for-3 with three RBIs in his first game in a one-run win over the Oakland Athletics. A day later, he entered late in the game and roped an RBI double in a close triumph against the Chicago White Sox. He also had an RBI single in a two-run victory over the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. O’Hearn appeared in just one of Baltimore’s three games against the Royals this week. He started Wednesday, going 0-for-2 before being removed for a pinch-hitter.
“He’s swung the bat extremely well for us in the role he’s been in,” Hyde said.
But, just as he experienced the past three years in Kansas City, O’Hearn’s playing time has been sporadic. His performance — a .682 career OPS and a .634 mark in 2023 — doesn’t force Hyde’s hand to play him more, and the lack of everyday plate appearances makes it even harder to get into a rhythm.
“It is difficult,” O’Hearn said about the bench role. “I think, for me, it was trying to find a way to just play with a grateful spirit and just understanding that this is all an unbelievable opportunity to put on a major league uniform, show up at a baseball field and make a living doing that. If my job was to sit on the bench until the seventh inning and get a pinch hit in the eighth, then so be it. That’s what it is.”
Despite that mentality, it’s “human nature” for O’Hearn to think about the “what if” scenarios. What if he didn’t slump in 2019 and hit .195 after he posted an impressive .950 OPS in 44 games as a rookie in 2018? What if he was given consistent playing time instead of pinch-hit opportunities mixed in with intermittent starts? Maybe, then, he could return to his old form. At the same time, though, O’Hearn tries to block out those thoughts as best he can.
“What if didn’t happen,” O’Hearn said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of points in my career in Kansas City when I was hoping and praying and wishing for more time. That’s not how it worked out.”
Four of his nine games this season have come as a pinch-hitter, and he’s received four plate appearances in a game just twice. To O’Hearn’s credit, though, he is coming off a season in which he was one of the best pinch-hitters in the sport. His 30 pinch-hit at-bats were tied for the most, and his 11 pinch-hit base knocks were more than any other player. No player in Royals history has more pinch-hit homers than O’Hearn’s four.
Hyde said O’Hearn is a “professional” about his role with the Orioles this season, adding his experience as a bench bat is valuable.
“Ryan’s been in that role before. It’s not easy for an everyday player that’s come up from the minor leagues to then kind of adjust to a part-time role or a platoon-type role,” Hyde said. “And Ryan’s not even really that. Ryan’s more of a left-handed bat for us off the bench, give [first baseman Ryan Mountcastle] a day off or get a [designated hitter] spot against a right-handed pitcher. He’s prepared, he knows how to prepare, he knows how to stay ready.”
In his career, O’Hearn has actually fared better as a pinch-hitter than he has as a normal batter. In 76 career plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, O’Hearn has a .254/.342/.493 for a well-above average .835 OPS. Those numbers are 43% better than his career OPS of .682.
“I learned how to do the role,” O’Hearn said. “I’d be lying if I said it was always easy. There were definitely down points and times when I would get frustrated. I tried my hardest not to show it. Just having that change of perspective is what’s kept me in this game this long, and I’m better for it and I’m not gonna change that anytime soon.”