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2019 Marlins Season Preview: Peter O’Brien

There are signs that the Miami native may still live up to the hype he once had as a highly touted prospect.

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Via Marlins/Twitter

The Marlins projected Opening Day right fielder, Peter O’Brien is the definition of “Miami through and through.” He was born and raised in South Florida, the son of a Cuban refugee with an amazing story in her own right. The slugger played baseball locally prior to making a name for himself at Bethune-Cookman College, eventually transferring to the University of Miami for his senior year.

Seven years after signing with the New York Yankees as a second-round draft pick, O’Brien finally has an opportunity to seize consistent MLB playing time. It just so happens that the opportunity comes with the team he grew up rooting for.

How did he get here? Purchased from the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 1, 2018

2018 MLB Stats: .273/.338/.530, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 142 OPS+ in 22 G

2019 ZiPS Projections: .193/.266/.390, 21 HR, 57 RBI, 79 OPS+ in 121 G

O’Brien was visible in the community throughout the offseason, doing interviews with local news outlets like WPLG Local 10 to spread enthusiasm about the Marlins rebuild.
Photo by @WillManso/Twitter

In O’Brien, the Marlins do not simply envision an anonymous stopgap to fill the first base/corner outfield void until a “real” prospect is ready. They are still intrigued by the ceiling he originally had when entering the pros in 2012.

Over a three-year span in the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Royals, and Rangers organizations, O’Brien’s strikeout rate was comically high. He generally stayed in the 35%-40% range with an occasional dip below 30%. To put that in perspective, MLB position players combined for a 21.7 K% last season.

However, with the Marlins organization in 2018, O’Brien consistently maintained a K% below 30%, including a 29.7 K% following his call-up.

We saw the same encouraging progression from him in terms of walk rate. After floating around a 7 BB% for most of his career, O’Brien surged to a 16.1 BB%, 14.8 BB% and 9.5 BB% with Double-A Jacksonville, Triple-A New Orleans and the Marlins, respectively.

Here is O’Brien’s improved plate approach, visualized:

Vast improvement on limiting his swings on pitches outside of the strike zone.
Left: Pre- 2018 Right: 2018 (Marlins)

When previously in the majors with the Dbacks in 2016, O’Brien was swinging at 45.6% of pitches that were outside the strike zone. That willingness to expand the zone is a pitcher’s fantasy. O’Brien frequently put himself in unfavorable counts, situations where he’d need to take defensive swings to keep plate appearances alive, meanwhile sacrificing the power potential that makes him special.

O’Brien trimmed that chase rate all the way down to 25.8% in 2018. His contact rate also sky-rocketed from 59.6% in 2016 to 71.8% with Miami.

This combination of plate discipline and coordination understandably led to great results. O’Brien hit a home run every 16.4 at-bats once being promoted to the big league club. Among all Marlins returning from that roster, only Brian Anderson (10.1 Offensive Runs Above Average) contributed more offensive value during the season than the Hialeah native did (2.7), according to Fangraphs.

O’Brien is years removed from trying to develop as a catcher; his bat and versatility will make or break his major league career.

He spent more than 90 percent of his defensive innings with the Marlins last season as a first baseman, though Don Mattingly plans to get him playing time in right field moving forward. Veterans Neil Walker and Martín Prado have reduced mobility at their relatively advanced ages, so O’Brien is being displaced to accommodate them.

Did Peter O’Brien, at age 28, suddenly put it together? It would certainly make him a late bloomer by today’s standards, but the recent changes in his approach have all been encouraging (though over a limited sample size).

No question, the 2019 season will go a long way toward determining the rest of O’Brien’s career. Unleashing the impact talent buried deep inside of him on a regular basis would also be a big victory for the Marlins player development staff. Succeeding with reclamation projects like this is necessary to complement their existing core and exceed the industry’s expectations.