FORT MYERS, Fla. — The dread began to set in on Ryan O’Hearn’s drive home from St. Petersburg, when he took his foot off the accelerator of his truck and realized his right knee had completely locked up.
He feared the worst and hoped for the best, that the tweak of his knee during a play in the outfield wouldn’t completely derail what had otherwise been a strong push toward a roster spot with the Orioles.
O’Hearn joined Baltimore via an offseason trade with the Kansas City Royals. He was immediately designated for assignment, passed through waivers and assigned to the minor leagues. With an invitation to big league spring training, however, O’Hearn knew he had an opportunity — the swelling in his knee, then, was an unwelcome hindrance.
“The first day I was pure panic,” O’Hearn said.
But a week later, O’Hearn stood in the Orioles clubhouse with the swelling in his knee down and the fear of a major injury placated by an MRI that showed no structural damage.
If O’Hearn’s invitation to major league spring training was an opportunity to push for a spot as a corner outfielder and backup first baseman, his availability was paramount. Missing a week of games was unfortunate, considering his impressive start at the plate. But with two weeks remaining in camp, O’Hearn is motivated to make the impending decisions for the Orioles front office as difficult as possible.
“Feeling very relieved and thank God it wasn’t anything worse,” he said. “Now I can go back out and compete for a job.”
That competition is fierce, with several backup first-base options playing at a high level. There’s also a chance executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias could stick with players already on the roster as cover behind Ryan Mountcastle, leaving O’Hearn and others waiting for another chance.
O’Hearn has been in this position before, though. In his five years with the Royals, the 29-year-old never had an everyday role. And last season, he hit his fewest homers (one) and drove in his fewest runs (16).
“He went into that spring [last year] and played very well but didn’t really get an opportunity until deep into the summer,” said Dan Hennigan, his coach at Brain and Barrel Hitting near Philadelphia. “As a pinch hitter, he actually played pretty well overall. It’s not easy. I’ve been there at lower levels of pro ball, and maintaining timing isn’t fun when you’re getting a start or two a week.”
But O’Hearn wanted to find more consistency, so he flew to Brain and Barrel and spent three days working closely with Hennigan. Once there, O’Hearn and Hennigan began an overhaul that continued with the Orioles hitting coaches after the trade.
Hennigan worked to make O’Hearn’s swing path more linear to the ball by opening his chest and torso.
And the main change, which has paid the most dividends this spring, was a shortening of his stride. Matt Borgschulte, an Orioles co-hitting coach, noticed how O’Hearn’s full leg kick could cause him to become unbalanced, “which leads to a little too much upper-cut and missing balls.”
Ryan Fuller, the club’s other co-hitting coach, watched film from 2019, when O’Hearn used a toe tap rather than a full step. They reverted O’Hearn closer to that approach, starting his right foot where his toe tap used to be, allowing O’Hearn to just stride forward instead of needing a lengthy leg kick.
“We knew we had to make sure his upper half joints could get the barrel to certain locations at angles that actually make the ball do rewarding things,” Hennigan said. “There were certain locations his body just physically couldn’t get to unless he knew how to dislocate body parts mid-swing — that didn’t sound fun. There were other locations that he could get to, but the bat couldn’t collide in productive ways.”
And as Hennigan explained the reasons why O’Hearn’s barrel percentage declined from 8.3% to 7% between 2021 and 2022, O’Hearn “began to interrupt certain pieces and finish my sentences because he started grasping the ‘whys’ behind it,” Hennigan said.
That breakthrough led O’Hearn into this spring, in which he has gone 9-for-21 with a homer, four RBIs and a 1.119 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. But even those marks might not be enough to make the Opening Day roster.
Still, O’Hearn is happy to be competing at all, not sidelined with a knee injury he at first feared might end his spring altogether.
“I feel like the competition or adversity brings out the best in me,” he said. “And whether that translates into opening day, or a month in, at some point I know I’m going to get the opportunity to play Major League Baseball.”