As the 2021 season came to an end, things looked good for Ryan Mountcastle. His 2020 debut season, only 35 games, was impressive at the plate with an .878 OPS. And while that number dropped in 2021, he launched a team-leading 33 home runs. The only question seemed to be if he would hit well enough to make up for his defensive liability in the field.
Then 2022 arrived and things got weird. On defense, Mountcastle finally got to regularly play the position he was most suited for, first base. In 2021 he was shuffled between first base, left field, and designated hitter with no real home. For a player whose defense has been suspect for most of his professional career, it was far from an ideal situation. But in 2022 he got the bulk of the playing time at first. After Trey Mancini was traded, Mountcastle played there almost exclusively.
Was he a defensive whiz? No. But he was markedly improved. Both his defensive runs saved (DRS) and Outs Above Average (OAA) jumped into positive numbers at +1 and +3 respectively. Is three outs above average modest? Yes. But it’s also good enough for third-best in baseball this season at the position and a seven-point swing from his number at first base last year. Defensive numbers can be tricky in the short term, but the improvement is only a good thing.
Playing the position he is meant to play and playing it consistently helped Mountcastle this year, yes. But this is Ryan Mountcastle, so I’m guessing you want to hear about the dingers. Because if Mountcastle is to find continued success in the majors, the bat needs to play. And this year, it didn’t really. Or...did it?
Mountcastle’s overall offensive numbers dropped in 2022. His overall OPS of .729 was just above league average and if you look at a comparison of his numbers from 2021 compared to 2022, they look freakishly similar except for just one thing. And that one thing is important when it comes to Mountcastle as it’s probably the biggest part of his offensive game. That’s right, dingers.
If you hung around Orioles Twitter during the season, you probably saw the below picture posted several times when people discussed Mountcastle.
Basically, Mountcastle hits the snot out of the ball and all of his expected stats (wOBA, Batting Average, Slugging) are very very good numbers. They blew his 2021 offensive numbers out of the water, both expected and actual. For some reason, it didn’t translate to the field.
The Baltimore Sun did a postseason wall analysis that determined that the new outfield dimension took four home runs away from Mountcastle, and noted that Statcast ranked Mountcastle as having the second-biggest gap between his expected home runs and actual home runs behind only the similarly disadvantaged Trey Mancini. Five or so more homers would have bumped his numbers up to a much more respectable place.
Even if part of the reason for Mountcastle’s troubles is the new outfield dimensions, then so what? Those dimensions aren’t going anywhere. Does that mean Mountcastle’s success as an Oriole hitter is ruined forever? Maybe not if he can get those expected numbers into reality.
I know that lots of folks give side eye to expected stats, and I get it. Who cares what is expected when the only thing that matter is what actually happened? But those numbers could mean that he just needs the tide to turn a bit and he’ll be right back where he should be offensively. If he can keep those numbers up, could his bad luck turn into a breakout season next year?
Back to Statcast. The difference between Mountcastle’s xSLG (.509) and his actual SLG (.423) was the largest difference in baseball in 2022. Some other batters with similar xSLG included Corey Seager (xSLG .510, SLG, .455), Joc Pederson (xSLG .502, SLG .521) and Byron Buxton (xSLG .509, SLG .526).
It’s not magic. Players with xSLG of over .500 don’t generally perform as poorly as Mountcastle did this year. And if he keeps hitting the ball as hard as he does, it’s not going to stay like that forever. There’s no reason he won’t have a successful 2023 where the results match the underlying numbers.
If his numbers do improve, is that enough for the next great Orioles team? Right now I am inclined to say no. I like Mountcastle, and I think he’s better than he played in 2022. But if the Orioles are looking to build a monster team for the future, it might not include Mountcastle. Do we really imagine a future where he is in the same league as the first basemen you saw in the postseason this year?
I don’t think that means much for 2023, though. There is no prospect waiting in the wings, there are no standout free agents at first base, and there are still a lot of areas that need focus. And maybe in 2023 Mountcastle will not only bounce back, but he’ll propel himself into that upper echelon of first baseman. I don’t think he will, but a broad can dream.
Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Keegan Akin
Tomorrow: Anthony Santander