In July 2021, MASN ran a joint interview with Ryan Mountcastle and Hunter Harvey, two then-Orioles teammates whose friendship, it turns out, has a lot of the 21 Jump Street, Step Brothers, or Dumb and Dumber about it. The two giggled a lot, exchanging glances as they took questions. As roommates, we learned, they used to play video games so long that their girlfriends demanded they get separate apartments. They refuse to talk baseball off the field, preferring “dumb[er]” topics of conversation. And they love to talk trash. Asked what would happen if they ever faced each other, Mountcastle replied, if Harvey “left one over the plate, that thing’s going way out.”
Ryan Mountcastle is a goofball, but, after he blasted a Hunter Harvey fastball the opposite way in Washington on Tuesday night, we must admit: he’s a goofball with a knack for prediction. And for hitting home runs.
It’s been an up-and-down 2022 for Mountcastle. 1.3 WAR in 126 games from your first baseman is not terribly impressive—nor is a chase rate falling in the bottom 7% of all hitters. For most of July and August, Mountcastle was mired in a nasty slump. He hit .195 in the month of July. He slugged .299. (And we can’t even blame this on getting hit twice on the hand, since that happened in August.) Mounty recorded only 14 extra-base hits in two months during that stretch.
What explained the drought? As CC newcomer John Beers pointed out in a deep dig into RMC’s offensive stats a month ago, the slugger started to struggle to hit breaking balls, chasing sliders especially, while seeing fewer heaters. Curiously, the slump seemed to coincide with increased plate discipline for Mounty: the more pitches he saw, the more fastballs he laid off of, and the more late-count breaking balls he faced—breaking balls he wasn’t hitting!
But come September, just as the Orioles offensive fortunes have seemed to tank, RMC’s have started to lift off. He’s OPS’ing .960 in September, and his 5 walks in 12 games give him a rate of 10%, his highest for any month this year. He’s striking out in just 18% of appearances, his lowest total on the season, while his chase rate is down to 31.7% (down from a high of 48% in July). Plus, his barrel percentage is up 16% from his year average (30.6%) and his hard-hit percentage is a monstrous 55.6%.
That is what Ryan Mountcastle should look like at the plate: slightly below-average in plate discipline, but smacking baseballs with authority.
What is surprising but pleasing to learn is that, beneath the peaks and valleys of hot streaks and slumps, Mountcastle’s batted-ball data shows this playing out as expected. For instance, Mountcastle’s standard stats were better in his brief 2020 debut—a .333 average and .878 OPS in 35 games—but he wasn’t hitting the ball anywhere near as hard. This season, in pretty much every Statcast category—exit velocity, launch angle, sweet spot, hard hit%, and all the “expected ___” stuff, Mountcastle is hitting career highs. Not only that, but he ranks in the Top 9% of the league in three Statcast batted-ball categories that track power—expected slugging, expected weighted on-base average (xWOBA), and the deliciously-named xWOBACON (same, but “on contact”). Conclusion: one, the hard-hit balls will eventually drop in for him and, two, he is still reaching his potential as a slugger.
During an offensively flat series in the Boston last week, Mountcastle hit three screamers that turned into near misses. In Washington this week, those balls have dropped for him. That is the idea: hit it hard, and good things will eventually happen.
One more thing to mention: Mountcastle’s defense, which is in the black at first base, a position he can finally hold onto. In 2021, when the slugger finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year race despite strong offensive numbers, his lacking defense was often mentioned as the reason. Here—no surprise—the Orioles did the one-time shortstop zero favors by asking him to pick up an outfielder’s glove. According to Statcast data, Mountcastle was a bad outfielder (-6 outs above average over 2020-21), a lackluster first baseman in 2021 (-4 OAA), but a better-than-average one in 2022 (+2 OAA). He’s been working hard at it, taking his extra reps with infield coach Tony Mansolino, and it’s paid off, because “Ryan Pickcastle” is showing quick reflexes, good instincts, good hands, and very good range. Check him out here, helping to pad Jorge Mateo’s (deservedly excellent) stat line:
Jorge Mateo Ryan Mountcastle pic.twitter.com/4v3CqWp2vb— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) September 5, 2022
After just five homers in the month of July and August, Mountcastle has four in 12 games during September, to go with his highest OBP of the year so far. Of Mounty’s performance on Monday night, which included a homer, a single, and two walks, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said, “Those were the best at-bats he’s taken in months. The walks, the ability to lay off some breaking balls down, tough pitches, go deep in the count and turn around 100 into right-center … he showed you tonight what he’s capable of.”
Ryan Mountcastle has “the trust of the organization and no immediate challenger for his playing time.” For the young slugger, this is a good time to be peaking. If his September surge helps revive the Orioles’ push for a playoff spot, great. If not, RMC is a player who can continue to steer toward his ceiling in the seasons ahead.