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Let’s play hitting coach for Ryan Mountcastle

After setting the O’s rookie home run record in 2021, this year has been much more streaky for RMC. We take a look at what has caused some struggles and possible fixes.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Of all the things that the Trey Mancini trade signaled, perhaps the most obvious is this: the front office believes that Ryan Mountcastle is the future at 1B. It would just be nice if Mountcastle was rewarding that faith just a little bit more.

The Orioles may be 22-10 since the beginning of July, but the Orioles’ rookie home run record holder has not been the biggest contributor to that success. Since July 1, Mountcastle is batting .210 with 24 hits and 30 strikeouts. At one point this season he was an extra-base hit machine, but in his last 114 at-bats, he’s only recorded seven doubles and two home runs. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Mancini’s offense has lifted off since joining the Astros—currently slugging .722 with three HRs and seven RBIs in Houston.

So the question is, what’s wrong with Mountcastle and how do the Orioles “fix” a player that they are counting on to be a cornerstone for their next era of relevance?

All season Mountcastle has feasted on changeups and other offspeed offerings. On the season, the third-year righty is hitting .298 against offspeed pitches—out-performing his xBA by 30 points. Naturally, pitchers have avoided throwing Mountcastle too many changeups—but it’s not like that’s been the reason for his slump. In fact, RMC’s best month of the year, June, coincided with him seeing his lowest amount of changeups at 7.6%.

Where Mountcastle’s struggles have become pronounced as the season goes on is against breaking balls. When Mountcastle was raking earlier in the season, sliders and curveballs looked like beach balls. In May, he was hitting .316 and slugging .526 on breaking balls. In June, he may have lost two points on his batting average, but his slugging jumped all the way up to .743. Not only that, but in both May and July, he was outperforming his xBA and xSLG%.

To say that those stats didn’t hold up going deep into summer is a massive understatement. Over July and August, Mountcastle’s batting average on sliders and curves has dropped to .177, with no home runs and only four extra-base hits. Sliders were particularly problematic, as the O’s first baseman hit .083 while chasing 43% of sliders outside the zone.

Chasing pitches is an all-around problem for Mountcastle during this cold streak, as his chase rate went from 35.5% in June to 48.4% in July. Part of the problem may have to do with an increase in patience for RMC. The righty has often drawn comparisons to Adam Jones from Orioles broadcasters for his aggressive approach and willingness to attack the first pitch. As the months have gone on and Mountcastle’s batting average has decreased, his patience has actually increased. In June, Mountcastle saw an average of 4.03 pitches/AB. That number rose to 4.26 in July and sits at 4.58 so far in August.

It makes sense that someone struggling with breaking pitchers wouldn’t benefit from seeing more pitches. Most pitchers want to throw fastballs early in counts and use that to set up their breaking balls as out pitches. So the deeper Mountcastle gets in counts, the more likely is to see that slider he’s not hitting—especially as pitchers avoid throwing him changeups.

Mountcastle has also confounded all logic when it comes to his ability to hit the fastball. Month-to-month this season, his batting average on fastballs has increased every single month. What that rising batting average against four-seamers hides is a decreasing rate of solid contact. In April, Mountcastle barreled up 37.5% of the fastballs he faced. Checking back in July and that number was all the way down at 7.1%

Ryan Mountcastle Barrel% vs. 4-seam Fastballs
Baseball Savant

So if those are all the problems that Mountcastle is having, what might be the solution? As hinted at earlier, trying to attack pitches early in at-bats both fits his naturally aggressive approach and prevents him from getting set up to swing and miss at a breaking ball. In fact, on the season, Mountcastle is hitting .305 with a .876 OPS on the first pitch of at-bats. Those numbers jump up to .316 and .990 in 1-0 counts and only drops to .286/.734 in 0-1 counts (still above his overall batting average and slugging% on the year). Basically, if RMC is getting to the third and fourth pitches in at-bats, he’s that much less likely to truly do some damage.

It must also be said that there seems to be a correlation between Mountcastle’s desire/ability to pull the ball and his decline in power production this year. In 2021, so many of his hard-hit balls came in an area that started in the middle of the zone and spread inside as well as down. For a player with Mountcastle’s quick hands, that’s prime “pull the ball” territory. In 2022, his hard hit rate is more spread out, showing an approach where he is looking to shoot the ball all over the park. While this approach may suit a lead-off hitter who is looking to spray the ball to all fields and get on base, it doesn’t seem to be paying dividends for a hitter like Mountcastle who is trusted with driving in runs and fueling the O’s offense. If he can start to focus on pulling inside pitches similar to what we saw in 2021, Birdland can expect another offensive explosion from Mountcastle.

Mountcastle Hard Hit% 2021
Baseball Savant
Ryan Mountcastle Hard Hit% 2022
Baseball Savant

The good news for RMC is that he has the trust of the organization and no immediate challenger for his playing time. With Boom Boom in H-Town, not only do the Orioles have no other natural first baseman on the roster but there’s also no pressing challenger in the minors. The highest ranked Orioles prospect likely to see time at 1B is Coby Mayo—who is 20, currently at High-A and not likely to sniff the big leagues for several years. Mountcastle has plenty of to get back to his June form and improve beyond that. The hope is that he does that sooner or later as the Orioles continue to push for a playoff spot.

*It’s worth noting that, as I was writing this, Ryan Mountcastle delivered a 2-3 performance against the Blue Jays with a HR and 2 RBIs. Clearly, he took all of this to heart before it was even published.