Lexington Legends first baseman Ryan O'Hearn is a diamond in the rough.
After hitting just 11 home runs during his three seasons at Sam Houston State, O'Hearn has rapidly become one of the Kansas City Royals' top prospects by hitting 25 homers in his first two seasons in the minor leagues. Just 44 games into his stint with the Legends, O'Hearn has hit a South Atlantic League-leading 12 home runs this season.
"This guy can hit," said Legends hitting coach Damon Hollins. "From the first day to the last day, he's been consistent with getting his pitch to drive and he just tore it up last year."
The Royals drafted O'Hearn in the eighth round of last year's Major League Baseball Draft. He burst onto the scene with a home run in his first professional at-bat and went 5-for-5 in his debut for the Idaho Falls Chukars. He went on to become the Pioneer League's MVP after he hit .372 with 13 home runs and 54 RBI.
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"Obviously that league is geared more toward hitters, but with his swing, the directness of his swing and the shortness, just everything he had just clicked last year," Hollins said.
O'Hearn, a lefty, credits his success at the plate to a new approach that has allowed him to find his niche as a power hitter.
"Quiet and in control with the lower half (of the body)," said O'Hearn, who had homered four times in the Legends' last seven games entering Friday night. "And let the hands go, that's the secret. Staying in control of yourself and when you get up there, just take crazy swings. Slow it down, soft with the feet and quick with the hands."
Coming from a pitcher-friendly ballpark at Sam Houston State, the transition to the minor leagues has proven easier than O'Hearn expected. Despite his less-than-explosive collegiate statistics, the Royals liked what they saw.
"We had a good look at him in the fall of 2013," said J.J. Picollo, the Royals' assistant general manager of player personnel. "Our scouts really believed in his potential."
O'Hearn has enjoyed the freedom of professional baseball.
"Hitting with a wood bat is different," he said. "I like it more (than college) because it's kind of like, 'here you go' you're in control of yourself and they just let you be yourself and play how you want to play. It's been awesome."
O'Hearn's early success has opened his eyes to the possibilities ahead.
"My goal is to be a major league baseball player," O'Hearn said. "That's what I work for every day. It's basically up to the guys in the front office to put you where they put you and that's their job. For me, you can't think about that, you just have to take it day by day and worry about your at-bats and the game."
Standing in front of him are three more levels of the minor leagues — Class A-Advanced, Double A and Triple A — plus an additional obstacle. Current Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer just signed a two-year, $13.9 million dollar deal that locked him in until 2017. Hosmer's success last postseason secured his place as one of the top first basemen in the majors.
However, O'Hearn is not daunted.
"I don't look at any of that stuff," he said. "I think whenever I'm ready to play in the big leagues, whenever I earn that right, it'll all work out. I'm just worried about what's going on day to day. It's cool though to be able to watch him and how he's having so much success."
The Legends have allowed O'Hearn to try right field as well as first base as part of the organization's philosophy of creating multiple paths to the majors for players. He chafes at scouting reports that suggest he is subpar defensively.
"I hate that," said O'Hearn, whose four errors this season rank in the middle of the pack on a Legends team that has committed 62 in 44 games. "I have to disagree. I think I am an asset on defense, too. I heard that in reports, but I don't pay much attention to it. Defense is something I put a lot of emphasis on because of that. I want to be an asset at first base and at the plate."
Piccolo, the Royals' player personnel man, says O'Hearn has good hands and understands the finer points of how to play his position.
But O'Hearn will earn his keep at the plate.
"I think he has the tools and the God-given ability to continue to hit," the Legends' Hollins' said.
O'Hearn most wants to be known as a player who leaves everything on the field.
"Whether it's on defense or at the plate, I grind out every pitch and just play as hard as I can," he said. "When my career is over I want to be happy with what I did and say that the effort was there."
A quarter of the way through his first, and he hopes last, season as a Legend, O'Hearn is positioning himself to become a Royals standout for years to come, especially if the ride to the top remains as smooth as the beginning.
"I've enjoyed my time here," O'Hearn said about playing in Lexington. "I'm looking forward to continue playing here and having fun. The fans have been great, the fan support is awesome."
Right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the fifth overall choice in the June 2012 draft, has been added to the Legends roster.
Left-hander Tripp Davis was transferred from Lexington to Idaho Falls.
Zimmer joins left-hander Foster Griffin, a first-round pick by the Royals in 2014, and Scott Blewett, a second-round pick last year, on the Legends' pitching staff. All three are ranked among the top 10 prospects in the Kansas City organization.