If you happened to catch Wednesday night’s post-game interview with Ryan Mountcastle, author of the big three-run bomb that sewed up the game, and the series, against the Minnesota Twins, it went like something like this:
Jim Palmer: I watched you in April, I said, “OK, the league is adjusting. You’re going to have to make some adjustments.” You really had a great May, [a] .256 [average], RBIs were twice as many as you had in April, home runs were up from one to four. It looks like you’re carrying that into June. What kind of adjustments did you have to make?
Ryan Mountcastle: Yeah, I mean, just try and stay with my approach. Every at-bat I’m learning something new, and just trying to stay confident going forward, and keep playing my game.
Jim Palmer: What is that approach?
Ryan Mountcastle [sheepish]: Just try and stay in the middle of the field, and not yank balls to the left side. Try and stay inside the baseball, that’s something I’ve been working on with [hitting coach] Don Long in BP and in the cage.
Other than a more-than-passing resemblance to the Nuke LaLoosh philosophy of interviews, what we can take from that exchange is: Mountcastle has made adjustments at the plate.
Over the last nine games, the big righty is batting .323 (10-for-31) with two doubles, a triple, three homers and nine RBIs. During the Orioles’ two—count ‘em, two-game win streak against Minnesota, he went 4-for-8. His OPS in the past week is 1.167.
It’s about time. A month and a half ago, the Orioles were leading the majors in strikeouts with 135, and their No. 1 offender, with a horrific 40.9% of his at-bats ending in a K, was Ryan Mountcastle. It was ugly.
Now, you don’t want to get cocky when you’re just two games removed from a 14-game losing streak or a batting slump, but the good news is, both the Orioles and Ryan Mountcastle have improved. Today, there are 18 teams with more strikeouts than the Orioles (Tampa Bay is league “leader” with 606, to Baltimore’s 481). That’s quite a change.
At the time, Mountcastle, a natural fastball hitter, was suffering as teams read his scouting report and threw him more breaking balls. In 2020, Mountcastle saw a diet of 53% fastballs, 35.4% breaking balls, and 11.9% offspeed pitches; he mashed all of them. By April 2021, Mountcastle was receiving just 43% fastballs, 47% breaking balls and 10% offspeed pitches. And he was making this strategy look smart: he batted just .227 on fastballs, .294 on breaking pitches, and .000 against offspeed pitches. Ouch.
Now, a month later, the pitch ratio is back to almost exactly what it was in 2020—53% fastballs and the rest breaking/offspeed. That’s kind of odd, since Mountcastle is now back to hitting fastballs decently (.272 average), but not breaking balls (just a .197 average versus the pitch). Predictably, breaking balls are what pitchers are turning to, 37% of the time, to put away Mountcastle at-bats.
That’s basically the story: Ryan Mountcastle’s turnaround, so far, is the result of a 50-point swing in fastball hitting. Most of his hits have come on heaters, and most of his power, too. Mountcastle isn’t just making more contact; he’s making better contact, too, having slightly refined his approach at the plate. What Mountcastle told Jim Palmer and the MASN crew on Wednesday (after a little prodding), was basically that, when he’s off-kilter, he starts to fly open, making weak contact toward the left side of the infield. Instead, what he and hitting coach Don Long have been working on is getting Mountcastle to follow through with his hips, which opens up the middle of the field for him. (Check out a few random videos of Mountcastle at the plate at BaseballSavant, comparing hits to grounders to the left side, to see the form issues.)
Mountcastle is still not in his 2020 shape (which, to be fair, was also likely the product of bloated stats over a small sample size). To get there, he’ll have to conquer his issues with breaking balls (especially changeups), which he hit at a .327 clip last season, but which are his biggest liability this year, according to BaseballSavant.
Let’s be patient for now, though. Mountcastle still has a negative -0.8 WAR on the season, but if he continues to be used at first base, his best position, instead of the outfield, and if his recent statistical uptick continues—if he cuts down on strikeouts, continues to use the whole field, and starts making more contact on breaking balls—he’ll be the force for this team that he was last year. Combine that with a productive Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander, and this team could get a whole lot more watchable.