One of the brightest points from last season wasn’t just Ryan Mountcastle making his major league debut, but flourishing in it as well.
The Orioles’ deliberate approach in promoting Mountcastle, making sure he had passed every minor league test before getting the call to the bigs, seemed to pay off when he batted .333 with an .878 OPS in 35 games. He appeared poised, and properly prepared for the challenges of the major league level. He was a rookie, but he didn’t play like one.
The old adage is to beware the sophomore slump, however, and through 21 games that appears to be what’s taking place here. Mountcastle is batting .171, with a .486 OPS. He’s hit one home run, and after striking out 30 times in 126 at-bats last season, he’s fanned 25 times in 76 at-bats in 2021.
So, what’s going on? And how worried should Orioles fans be that this is something far bigger than a slump?
Let’s start with what’s the same. Although the stat sheet couldn’t look any more different, Mountcastle’s got the same metrics going in some areas. According to Baseball Savant, he has an average exit velocity of 87.7 miles per hour, which is right in line with last year’s 87.4. His barrel percentage of 10.4 percent is higher than last year’s 7.1. According to Fangraphs, his pull, center field and opposite field splits (31.6, 36.7 and 31.6 percent in 2020, 33.3-37.5-29.2 in 2021) are similar, too. So there goes the idea of his struggles being due to abandoning part of the field.
At the same time, his expected batting average has noticeably declined, from .266 to .188 now. So what seems like a paradox (he’s hit the ball as hard as last year for the most part, but has made poorer contact) is explained by his batted ball splits. Mountcastle’s contact resulted in a ground ball percentage of 43.9 last year, and a fly ball number of 36.7 (according to Fangraphs). This year, the numbers are reversed, at 29.2 and 54.2, respectively.
Suddenly, that makes sense. The more balls you hit in the air while making so-so contact, the harder it gets for those balls to fall in for hits. Hitting on the ground isn’t encouraged in this era of launch angle, but if you’re not drilling the ball hard enough for it to leave the ballpark, hitting it in the air is the easiest way to get yourself out.
That’s only part of the issue, though. Mountcastle struck out 21.4 percent of the time in 2020, and it’s up to 32.5 percent now. The easiest explanation for this would be an over-eagerness at the plate and difficulty at laying off pitches out of the zone, but that hasn’t been the culprit. Mountcastle’s chase percentage is down from 40.1 percent to 37.5, and his zone percentage is up nearly three points from 45.8 to 48.6. Pitchers are challenging him as often as they did, and when they go out of the zone, he’s been no more likely to bite.
The alarming numbers come from the pitches that are actually in the strike zone; Mountcastle just hasn’t been hitting them. His whiff rate on fastballs is up from 21.4 to 30 percent. Offspeed pitches have given him a particularly tough time, as he’s gone from swinging and missing 32.4 percent of the time to 54.5. That’s not a good place to be.
Add those two factors together — more balls hit harmlessly in the air, and more times being fooled by pitches in the zone — and you get painted a good picture as to why a batting average takes a dip.
The other issue, though, is how big of a concern this is.
For a player not even a full month into his first big-league season, this is probably the stereotypical example of the “sophomore slump.” A player has early success, is eager to repeat it, and starts to struggle when the hits just aren’t falling.
Manager Brandon Hyde seemed to detect that a few weeks ago, saying that Mountcastle needed some opportunities to hit the reset button.
“I’m just trying to take a little pressure off Ryan,” he said. “He’s putting so much pressure on himself.”
When you’ve had above an .800 OPS at every level for three years, it’s probably disorienting to suddenly see that low batting average next to your name. You start to press, to try to jump on the first strike you see, start trying to make up for all the struggling in one at-bat. It happens. It’s not just a rookie thing, either.
It’s worrisome to see a player who the Orioles are going to need struggling like this. But it shouldn’t be cause for panic — for the player or his fans. Mountcastle has shown he can hit, but most batters go through a swoon. Now he just needs to show he can ride through it.