The Orioles have something in Ryan Mountcastle. He’s not a finished product and it’s too early to tell how good he can be, but he’s young (he turns 25 in February) and he’s talented. The O’s need more players that fit that description if they’re going to become relevant again.
This past season, Mountcastle finished fourth among O’s position players in Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs’ version) at 1.4. His 111 wRC+ was third on the team behind Cedric Mullins (136) and Ramón Urías (115), and he led the O’s in home runs with 33.
Compared to other American League rookies, his numbers are solid but not spectacular. His 1.4 fWAR ranks seventh among position players, and his 111 wRC+ is tied for sixth. Those 33 homers rank first, though (two ahead of Adolis García).
If you want to flaunt Mountcastle’s positives, there’s enough to focus on. He’s a promising young power hitter who figures to be a lineup mainstay for years. He now owns the O’s rookie home run record, passing Cal Ripken, Jr. (28) and Eddie Murray (27). MLB players recently voted him the 2021 AL Outstanding Rookie, and he was in the conversation for the AL Rookie of the Year award. He even tried his best to knock the Red Sox out of playoff contention at the end of the season, to no avail:
The question, then, is if there’s more here. As a slugger who projects as an average first baseman defensively (at best) and will also get plenty of at-bats as the designated hitter, Mountcastle’s value mainly comes down to what he can accomplish at the plate. And there’s room for growth.
When Mountcastle debuted in the truncated 2020 season, there was little doubt about his ability to hit for power. But what made his initial showing more intriguing was his ability to get on base. In his first 140 plate appearances with the Orioles, he excelled with a .333/.386/.492 batting line and a 139 wRC+.
Mountcastle had never posted an on-base percentage better than .349 in any of his minor-league stops. Part of that high on-base percentage in 2020 was due to small sample size and a .398 batting average on balls in play, but he also walked 7.9% of the time. His minor-league best was 6.1%, with Double-A Bowie in 2018.
The power was there again for Mountcastle in 2021. His expected slugging percentage (.451), barrel percentage (11.8) and max exit velocity (114.6) were all above the 71st percentile among MLB hitters. (He was in the 93rd percentile in max exit velocity.) His average exit velocity, from 87.4 to 89.1, also improved.
But he wasn’t able to find the same on-base success and hit the ball hard where fielders weren’t, as his expected batting average (37th percentile) and expected on-base percentage (20th percentile) both dropped. This year, the average AL hitter had an on-base percentage of .316. Mountcastle’s on-base percentage was .309. His walk percentage also slipped a bit (7.9% to 7.0%) while his strikeouts increased (21.4% to 27.5%).
No, on-base percentage isn’t everything, but the most important thing a hitter can do is consistently get on base. And that’s the area where Mountcastle can improve the most to take that next step as an offensive force.
In some ways, he’s already started to adjust. Mountcastle has admitted to having a straightforward hitting strategy, but one noticeable change he implemented during the season was to widen his stance with two strikes and “maybe think more middle, and the other way.” It’s not clear exactly when Mountcastle made this adjustment, but it may have played a part in his improved post All-Star numbers after a rough start to the year:
Pre All-Star Break: .255/.305/.447, 101 wRC+, 6.1 BB%, 28.7 K%
Post All-Star Break: .254/.314/.539, 123 wRC+, 8.1 BB%, 26.0 K%
Mountcastle whiffed less after the All-Star Break and fouled off more pitches (first half, second half). He also pulled the ball slightly less (40.8% to 38.5%) and went opposite field a bit more (27% to 29%).
It’s important to note that slicing up a single season can mislead; after all, a few hits here and there can change the storyline. Still, without making any firm declarations about Mountcastle’s improved second half, it was encouraging to see him bounce back while trying new things.
It’s also worth noting that Mountcastle is far from the only O’s hitter with on-base concerns. With a collective on-base percentage of .304, the O’s were fifth worst in the big leagues in 2021. Only Urías (.361) and Mullins (.360) posted an on-base percentage north of .328. Anthony Santander (.286) and Austin Hays (.308), in particular, are lineup regulars who could use an on-base boost.
It’s easy to focus solely on on-base percentage, but a lot of these team-wide issues over the years boil down to poor swing decisions and failing to control the strike zone. Just like the Orioles have been working to reshape their organizational pitching philosophy from the ground up, they’re doing the same with their young hitters.
Top prospect Adley Rutschman summed things up well: “We want to obviously give ourselves the best chance to hit and do damage and controlling the strike zone is a big part in that. We take a lot of pride in that.”
A retooled swing and better mindset worked for Mullins. But while it’s easy to look at Mullins’ 2021 and dream of improvements up and down the O’s lineup, it rarely works that way. Still, he’s evidence enough that you never want to completely write off a player. Progress is often not linear.
Mountcastle has his work cut out for him to become a more complete slugger, and he’s not alone in that mission. But even if Mountcastle doesn’t get there, it’s a nice reassurance that Rutschman is on the way soon to give the O’s lineup some upside.
Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is an offensive metric in which 100 is the league average and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average.
Photo Credit: Colin Murphy/PressBox