The 2019 season may prove to be the most important of Trey Mancini’s career. He’s taken over both Adam Jones’s locker and his Popeye’s-buying obligation in the Orioles clubhouse. Not to mention, the 27-year-old Mancini is finally healthy following an up-and-down 2018, and it shows. He’s never looked more locked in at the plate.
Mancini leads the Orioles in just about everything: batting average (.339), on base percentage (.400), slugging percentage (.710), home runs (six), doubles (six) and RBI (12). That doesn’t even include any advanced metrics, but he leads the team there as well, including fWAR (0.8), bWAR (0.7), wRC+ (194), wOBA (.453), ISO (.371) and even BsR (0.9).
This is despite Mancini continuing to play out of position in the two corner outfield spots for the bulk of his innings. His defense has not improved. He’s currently on pace to perform even worse with the leather (-22.6 UZR/150) than he did a season ago, when he played much of the year on an ailing knee. Even taking his poor glovework into account, Mancini remains the most valuable member of this Orioles team.
His .453 wOBA places him among the game’s elite, the top five percent of all hitters. He is just ahead of studs like Bryce Harper and Jose Altuve while in the same neighborhood as defending NL MVP Christian Yelich. That’s fine company to keep, especially for a statistic that reflects overall offensive contributions.
Such production could be linked back to more patience at the plate. Mancini is swinging at just 45.2 percent of pitches, nearly five percent below his career average. This has allowed him to see an above average 4.04 pitches per plate appearance. When he does swing, the Notre Dame product is making making more contact than in previous seasons (75% contact rate in ‘19 vs 73.6% career). All of this has added up to fewer strikeouts and more frequent walks; always a nice combination for a hitter.
The following two charts show how Mancini has become more difficult to pitch to in the early part of 2019.
Here is how his strike zone heat map looked last season:
He developed a clear comfort zone down and away. Sure, he could handle pitches elsewhere around the plate, but he had a preferred zone that pitchers could tip toe around.
Here is 2019 so far:
There aren’t as many deep reds as in 2018, but there are more reds in general and the cover almost the entire plate. The only cold zone in the entire strike zone is middle up. If a pitcher has pinpoint control, they may try to spot a strike there, but if they miss low then they are in some serious trouble. The pitcher may be better off staying down in the zone, but Mancini has shown an ability to golf those pitches into the outfield gaps as well. You can see how this is a tough problem to deal with for opposing hurlers.
The improved power numbers seem to be the result of a slight tweak in approach. Mancini has increased his average launch angle by more than two degrees from 5.4 to 7.7. Logically, this has coincided with a drastically higher fly ball rate of 38.3 percent, nearly 12% higher than 2018. And while he is hitting the ball about as hard as he was a season ago, Mancini has squared up pitches more often in 2019. His 15.6% barrel rate is more than twice the 6.1% league average.
All of these numbers are encouraging and hint towards Mancini possibly turning a corner as a big leaguer. But it is also still a small sample size that begs for a course correction to a certain degree.
His .366 BABIP is likely unsustainable, but not by as wide of a gap as it would be for other players. Mancini owns a career .319 BABIP, and he had a .352 BABIP in his impressive rookie season in 2017.
That elevated BABIP is helping Mancini to out-perform many of his peripherals. According to Baseball Savant, his expected batting average is .292 and expected slugging percentage is .620, both significantly lower than his actual stats.
What is almost certain to drop are Mancini’s power numbers. He is currently on pace to hit 60 home runs over the entire season. For a player that has previously hit just 24 home runs in a season, that number seems unattainable.
The reason for the big home run numbers early is that 33.3% of fly balls hit by Mancini have gone for home runs. That is the 15th-highest mark in MLB with only the likes of Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, Khris Davis and Mike Trout ahead of the O’s slugger. Mancini’s altered approach at the plate should keep him well above average in terms of home run-to-fly ball ratio and lead him to a new career-high in home runs, but it may not be able to maintain his position towards the top of the leaderboards.
This hot start to the season for Mancini has been a lot of fun to watch. At this moment, he is legitimately one of the best hitters in the league. With three years of team control remaining beyond 2019, he finds himself in a strange situation where he could be a key member of the next competitive Orioles team, or a valuable trade chip that lands them a batch of prospect lottery tickets from a team that is ready to compete right now. Whatever the outcome, enjoy watching one of the few homegrown Orioles outperform expectations and possibly turn a few heads in the process.
[All statistics mentioned in this post come from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.]