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Ryan Mountcastle is making adjustments

With more time has come more comfort for the Orioles’ most intriguing hitter.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

The current infighting between Orioles fans in regards to a more visually-aesthetic product was inevitable. To Birdland’s credit, however, I’m surprised it took this long. The warring factions of “why aren’t the Orioles calling up better players” and “this is what a rebuild is supposed to look like” both present valid points.

As I sit here writing this, the Orioles are deploying an infield that includes Domingo Leyba, Ramon Urias, and Pat Valaika, three players that you probably never would have heard of had your favorite team not been their employer. Out of all 30 teams, the Orioles are 23rd in runs scored, 26th in on-base percentage, and 29th in offensive wins above replacement. Somehow, some way, the pitching has been even worse.

Oriole pitching ranks dead last with a 5.52 ERA, while having given up a league-high 121 home runs. Brandon Hyde is stuck deploying a group of pitchers that have accumulated the second-to-worst WHIP (1.46), while his starting pitching has thrown the second-fewest number of innings. His bullpen owns the sixth-worst wins probability added among all reliever groups. You can look at it however you want, but as a collective group, this team sucks.

That’s kind of where we’re at now. Aside from only a small percentage of the active roster, there’s hardly much cause to care. So for all those that feel something similar, I get it. We’re coming up on five consecutive years of elite-level losing. I am also tired.

Even so, Cedric Mullins has earned your attention. John Means has earned your attention. Trey Mancini beat cancer and you’d never know it by the way he’s played. He’s earned your eyeballs. And over the last month or so, Ryan Mountcastle has cemented his status as a player that will keep me coming back.

Mountcastle sort of became the first real shiny piece of a farm system on the mend, as the now 24-year-old debuted a season ago with aplomb. In his first 140 plate appearances, Mountcastle managed a 141 wRC+, offering a solid balance of high exit velocity home runs with singles fueled by feel for the barrel. He was good and it was good to see, but 2021 was always going to be more of a telling litmus test for his swing-heavy approach at the plate.

Over the first two months of the 2021 season, the results sided with his skeptics. Combining April and May, Mountcastle managed only a 70 wRC+, owning the second-worst BB/K ratio in baseball (0.1). In that span, he had the third-highest whiff and chase rates among all hitters. Mountcastle’s never seen a pitch he didn’t like, especially a fastball. So pitchers threw him a more-than-usual number of sliders to start the year.

Adapting to big league breaking balls thrown by big league pitchers was always an obstacle Mountcastle was going to face, a test he passed during the COVID-shortened season. Early on this year, however, the success did not duplicate.

In terms of pitch value, Mountcastle was among the bottom 20 hitters in baseball against the slider, producing a .236 wOBA against the pitch. He wasn’t doing much against the changeup either, in fact, he was doing even less. His .164 wOBA when swinging at changeups was also among the lowest of qualified hitters. If you had to come up with one broad, general concern as it pertained to Mountcastle, it would have been exactly what we were seeing.

But good hitters make adjustments, and Mountcastle did.

Ryan Mountcastle April/May vs. June

- AVG OPS Barrel% ISO Hard-Hit% Contact% CSW%
- AVG OPS Barrel% ISO Hard-Hit% Contact% CSW%
First 188 PA's .226 .628 9.2% 0.147 33.6% 65.3% 33.2%
Last 95 PA's .341 1.037 10.6% .307 37.9% 72.4% 25.2%
Stats via Fangraphs

These are some pretty substantial spikes in offense, but it’s because Mountcastle has put himself in a better position at the plate. While the hard-hit and barrel rates haven’t rose dramatically, the likely foundation for his recent run could start with a notable decrease in called strikes and whiffs.

Mountcastle was among the league leaders in CSW%, or called strikes and whiff percentage, which measures exactly what it you think it does. That number was shouldered heavily by his swing and miss numbers, though but he’s been more under control this month leading to better at-bats. If I were a betting man, which I am, I’d say Mountcastle got a taste of how pitchers would predictably attack him and now has a better grasp of his perceived flaws.

The charts above represent Mountcastle’s contact rates against both sliders and changeups. The left depicts all of his at bats prior to the start of June, and the right represents the beginning of the current month. It doesn’t take more than a glance to notice deeper shades of red and higher rates of contact in previously troublesome portions of the zone. Mountcastle has gone from one of the easier outs in baseball to a more well-rounded hitter.

Ryan Mountcastle vs. CH/SL

- wOBA vs CH wOBA vs SL Whiff% vs CH Whiff% vs SL
- wOBA vs CH wOBA vs SL Whiff% vs CH Whiff% vs SL
First 188 PA's .164 .236 31.2% 26.4%
Last 95 PA's .069 .436 26.5% 24.4%

Granted, he’s still struggling against changeups, but we’re seeing overall improvement. Some of it big, some of it small, but improvement nonetheless.

Acquiring a deeper sense of how he’s been schemed is also evidenced by something as simple as walking, something he’s done seven times over the last five games. It may not mean much considering how little he does walk, but it would seems there’s a concerted effort on his part to improve in that aspect of his approach.

Mountcastle’s intrigue lies in his power, and by showing an ability to learn and adapt, tapping into his elite barrel capabilities will happen more consistently. Mountcastle is in the 94th percentile in maximum exit velocity, with his hardest batted ball event being a 114.6 mph double. That’s big boy territory.

So yes, the Orioles stink. They’re going to continue to stink. It is what it is, even if it doesn’t have to be. But these were the cards we were dealt, and we have no choice but to play them. Find solace in knowing that if things for Ryan Mountcastle continue to trend this way, he will have more than lived up to realistic expectations. And when rebuilding, that’s the kind of the thing that makes it worthwhile.