What Makes Gavin Cross Such a Good Hitter?

Recently, a follower of the Royals Farm Report twitter account named “Ryan Heffernon” expressed concern after watching a clip of a Gavin Cross home run. He quote tweeted the clip with the comment “I cannot unsee Ryan O’Hearn’s in his swing and that terrifies me.”

Understandable.

Royals fans are conditioned to expect the worst. Years and years of losing and flopped first round picks shape us to see danger where there is relative safety and peril where there is hope.

And Gavin Cross is hope. I’ll show you why by comparing him to O’Hearn.

Beyond the fact that the Royals have turned their hitting development program into one of the top-5 in baseball, Cross is simply a gifted hitter. And while there are some similarities to O’Hearn (they’re both big, left handed hitters), those similarities end at the broadest understanding of the two.

As I pointed out in a reply to Ryan on Twitter, one interesting and important difference is their bat paths. As the screenshots above show, Cross has much more tilt to his bat path. It’s a swing designed to hit the ball in the air, out front, and on the underside. O’Hearn’s bat path often leads to balls with plenty of top spin that limit their carry and his power potential.

But their swings aren’t actually the biggest difference between them. Sometimes, people get too caught up in swing mechanics and forget that there are many other factors to hitting success … like hand eye coordination.

Cross has incredible hand eye coordination, and that becomes apparent when you see how frequently he gets the barrel to the ball. Hard hit balls aren’t just a function of strength or bat speed; they’re primarily a function of hand eye coordination. And he’s got a ton of it. In the homerun clip above, you see a fastball that missed the target and was just in off the plate. To be able to get the barrel to that ball is impressive. It’s one thing to hit middle-middle fastballs on the barrel. It’s another to hit balls that are in the shadow of the strike zone. That shows a healthy amount of barrel control, which means he won’t just hit balls hard when they’re down broadway. He can hit balls hard all over the strike zone (and maybe outside of it).

O’Hearn doesn’t have that same type of barrel control, which is why when he started facing MLB-caliber pitching for long stretches, he started to struggle. In the majors, pitchers live on the edges and just outside the zone. The fact that O’Hearn doesn’t have advanced barrel control keeps him from putting a charge into pitches on the edges and just outside it.

In terms of approach, they share some similarities … sort of. Or at least, Cross looks a little like O’Hearn did when O’Hearn was in low-A. It’s impossible to compare Cross’s approach now to O’Hearn’s approach now because major league pitchers don’t fear O’Hearn but low-A pitchers definitely fear Cross. They pitch them completely differently.

Cross works pretty deep into counts and has a 18.4% walk rate (incredible) and a 24.3% strikeout rate (a little high but nothing scary). O’Hearn had similar strikeout numbers in low-A (lower walk rates), but he’d already been in professional ball at that point. O’Hearn spent his draft season in short season Idaho Falls (when short season ball existed). So, he had a chance to get acclimated in more shallow waters than Cross. Cross is putting together very good plate appearances in his first look at professional pitching.

And of course, there’s the other thing that will always give Cross a better chance to succeed than O’Hearn: he’s a MUCH better athlete. This will, of course, allow him to play a well above average corner outfield. But it will also help him make adjustments at the plate. Look at O’Hearn’s swing; it can look a little mechanical. That’s because as gifted an athlete as he is (and he is a gifted athlete … he made it to the majors after all), it’s not always as natural and fluid as it is with someone like Cross who has a lot of fluidity to his game.

That’s not to say that Cross will definitely make it to the bigs and be a super star. I actually don’t think he will. I think he’ll be a solid 4-5 WAR player most seasons at the big league level. But there are a thousand potential pitfalls along the way. The pitching will get better, and it will be up to him to adjust.

Luckily, he has one more thing O’Hearn never had coming up.

Drew Saylor.

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