Peter O’Brien: Cheap power source
In terms of fantasy talent, the 2018 Marlins were a complete cesspool. This didn’t come as a surprise to anyone after they traded off three elite-level outfielders. Left was J.T. Realmuto and, well, nothing. And outside of Brian Anderson, they really had nothing above-average in that lineup. Because of this, the Marlins will head into 2019 with plenty of roster spots and playing time up for grabs.
The good news with this is that there will be plenty of opportunities for under-the-radar players to rise up and breakout. We saw this in a few instances last year with several bad teams, such as: Luke Voit, Ryan O’Hearn, Daniel Palka, Franmil Reyes, Jeff McNeil.
As I like to do often, I’m going to evaluate a deep dive player that could benefit from this possible playing time situation with the Marlins. One that is probably even further under-the-radar than most of the aforementioned examples above. The player I’m talking about is 1B/OF Peter O’Brien. The name does carry some weight, as not too long ago he was one of the better power-hitting prospects in the game. Once dubbed by Jeff Sullivan as the man who’s as strong as Giancarlo Stanton.
O’Brien has always been thought of as a strong hitter. Throughout the minors, he was known for his raw strength, and the concerns were contact frequency and defensive position. On the 20 – 80 scale, O’Brien’s raw power has frequently come in around 65 or 70. I’d suggest, after yesterday, that maybe it warrants an 80-grade. You have to be careful with those 80-grade labels, but why shouldn’t O’Brien be deserving? This is raw power, not game power. Raw power is supposed to tell you about a power ceiling. Why should we believe O’Brien doesn’t have as high a power ceiling as anybody?
We’ve seen glimpses of O’Brien’s raw power at the big league level. Of the 87 batted balls in his major league career, 26.4 percent of them have been hit at 100 MPH or harder, compared to the league average rate of 20.4 percent. At one point, he held the record for the hardest-hit home run in the Statcast era, a 119.5 MPH monster shot with the Diamondbacks back in Spring Training of 2016.
The main reason O’Brien hasn’t been able to find a consistent career in the majors is pretty simple. Making contact at a stable rate is a very tough task for him. And for a player that year-to-year posted below-average walk rates, these issues were eventually going to catch up with him at the higher levels of baseball. After hitting for a 106 wRC+ in Triple-A with the Diamondbacks in 2016, he was removed from the 40-man roster and flipped in a minor trade to the Royals. It was in Triple-A with them that his career in baseball started to crumble, as he hit for a putrid line of .162/.235/.276. This would end up in a release, starting his carousel in Triple-A with the Reds (released), Double-A and Triple-A with the Rangers (released), and Double-A with the Dodgers (released early in the 2018 season). Things got so bad for him that by the end of the 2017 season with the Dodgers Double-A affiliate, he was hitting for a 110 wRC+ with a 45.3 percent K-rate. He would end back up there to start 2018, but after hitting .150/.241/.390 through his first 112 plate appearances, he was released once again.
And of all teams for him to start a career resurrection with, it would be the Marlins. After being granted free agency from the Dodgers organization, he was back in double-A with the Marlins affiliate in Jacksonville, where he went on to hit for a 138 wRC+ in 43 games. This led him back to Triple-A, where he subsequently hit for an even better 150 wRC+ in 36 games.
In the midst of his major mid-season improvement, the one thing that stood out to me was the walk-rate. After posting walk-rates that hovered at or below an average level for most of his career, he went on to walk at a 15.5 percent clip between Double-A and Triple-A with the Marlins. His 14.8 percent clip in Triple-A ranked in the top six percent of the level.
It was in no doubt a small sample size, but his 135 plate appearances in Triple-A this season showed off some of the best power/on-base skills of any player.
This success gave O’Brien a second opportunity to prove he deserved to be in the bigs. His first two stints weren’t too pretty, as in a combined 79 plate appearances between 2015 and 2016, he slashed .176/.228/.446. But as I talked about above, the Marlins presented him with a clear opportunity to receive stable playing time.
O’Brien received 74 plate appearances in 22 games after his September call-up, becoming a regular contributor in the Marlins lineup while appearing in 17 games at first base and two in right field. Small sample size again, but he did nothing to deter his chances for another opportunity in the future. Among 640 hitters with 25 batted balls last season, he ranked 13th in xwOBA.
A lot of this had to do with his plate peripherals climbing towards the right direction.
The recently-released 2019 Steamer Projections currently predict 432 plate appearances for O’Brien next year. Roster Resource currently has him slated as the Marlins primary first baseman (Derek Dietrich in left; Brian Anderson in right), batting sixth in the lineup.
If he’s getting 300+ plate appearances and is hitting at a non-terrible level to keep his bat in the lineup, this seems like a great under-the-radar source of power. In my eyes, there shouldn’t be much preventing him from at least replicating Daniel Palka’s 2018 season (449 PA, .240/.294/.484, 27 HR). Best case scenario is that his improvements translate to the big league level in a larger sample size and he learns how to harness the raw power. In that case, with a full season of plate appearances, I wouldn’t write off 30 home run pop at all.
All in all, if you’re looking for an intriguing hitter to buy low on, O’Brien might be your guy.