In baseball, it’s rare that you find players with an 80-grade tool. Think Billy Hamilton’s speed or Joey Gallo’s power. These talents seem like special gifts only afforded to Marvel superheroes.
With this in mind, such players are under a ton of pressure to fulfill their full potential. They will consistently be presented with opportunities in the game of baseball, a longer leash than their peers to translate those maxed-out tools into productivity.
Hamilton and Gallo have been accepted for their imperfections, but Peter O’Brien has not. Why? Now in the Marlins organization, this is a chance for the 28-year-old to become a story of potential realized.
The Marlins are undergoing a transformation in which top prospects—and former top prospects—will have the chance to develop. Timeframes vary from one rebuild to another, but the common thread connecting all of them seems to be rolling the dice on players with upside and being patient. Sometimes these “stop-gaps” develop and become major league regulars, further accelerating the rebuild. The ones that don’t progress get labeled as AAAA players. My viewpoint is that a slight adjustment make all the difference between these two fates.
Peter O’Brien is close and there are a few changes that can help his future success turn from a dream to a reality.
O’Brien has been an intriguing talent for a long time. His 80-grade power made him attractive from the time he was drafted by the Yankees out of Bethune-Cookman. He started out in their farm system and made an impact right away, showing off his power despite showing poor strike zone management. Of course, this is a common theme for many all power bats who take advantage of the lack of refinement of secondary pitches by minor league pitchers.
With this success, his value increased and this led to his being traded to the Diamondbacks for Martín Prado. The Diamondbacks attempted to develop his talent from 2014 to 2017, but to no avail. The same struggles persisted. Since 2017, it has been a journeyman life for O’Brien going to teams like the Reds, Rangers, Dodgers, and finally now the Marlins.
Pete is a big man. He checks in at 6-foot-4, 235 and he looks the part for sure. To put it plainly, there are tons of levers in play when thinking about his swing mechanics. Plate coverage can be a hard skill to master. Some of the best hitters with his size will have struggles and have to accept there will be holes in their swing.
One thing that we have noticed is that O’Brien thrives on pitches down and in. This is evident when we look at his zone profile data.
I thought it would also be helpful to examine hitters with similar profiles.
What we find is that all three have their highest batting averages on pitches down and in. They also see a drop-off in results against pitches on the outside half of the plate. This is a common cold zone for the over-sized power hitter. Giancarlo Stanton repeatedly had this issue, but sought to find a resolution to it in 2017: he incorporated a pronounced closed batting stance.
Consider the 2016 version of Stanton.
And then, his stance evolved from there.
You've seen how Stanton's closed his stance by now. But it's still cool to look at the different stages this season. All these are home runs pic.twitter.com/1xxFGgwIUL— David Adler (@_dadler) August 21, 2017
He improved dramatically on the low-and-away pitch, from .241 all the way up to .452 en route to the NL MVP award.
He’s also benefited from being able to cover the outer half from 2017 to 2019 with respective averages of .452, .250 (injuries affected his performance), and .500 this year (currently interrupted by yet another injury).
Basically, what I am advocating for is following Stanton’s example, not by mimicking him precisely, but altering his stance to a certain extent.
O’Brien underachieved with the Marlins earlier this season, slashing .111/.200/.222 with a bloated 46.7% strikeout rate. Here is how he set himself up at the plate:
We can see his is square rather than closed.
Now, let’s peek back to late 2018 when he was Miami’s September star...
During that successful stretch, he incorporated a noticeably closed stance. Again, I am presuming this would help some. A pronounced closed stance would send the message not to attack him on the outer half, giving him a more palatable set of locations that pitchers would employ to get him out. Basically having them play into his hands by attacking on the inner half.
If you look closely at O’Brien’s whiff rates over his at-bats in the majors during his career, pitchers most frequently attack him low and away, attempting to induce chases outside of the zone.
One of the greatest stimuli for a taller power hitter is his ability to get extension with hands to hit. This occurs naturally on the outer half for bigger hitters. The challenge exists in the flexibility required to drive the down and away pitch. This is where pitchers seek to complicate things. Many power hitters of the past and present have incorporated the closed stance change successfully, albeit to varying degrees.
In the past, hitters like Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield all thrived with this approach. Today, names like Nolan Arenado and Stanton have employed this as well. It has benefited some smaller hitters like Javier Baez and Eddie Rosario.
More importantly all of these hitters have employed this method because of their quickness on the inner half. Peter happens to also be quick on the inside pitch negating that potential problem.
There is an old saying: you know a hitter is going right when he is hitting pitches of all types to center and the opposite field. This also shows a hitter is staying inside the pitch and let your hand guide the direction of the ball off the bat.
Peter O’Brien still has a ton of potential and it can be realized with a commitment to changing what he hasn’t been doing right. More importantly, the Marlins have a vacancy at first and with no solution currently in the plans, it sets back the rebuild a ton in its ability to win. Here’s hoping that he considers this potential change and is willing to implement it. There’s no place like home, and O’Brien can make a safe and secure one with his hometown Marlins if the correct changes take place.