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Ryan Mountcastle hit well when he wasn’t hurt in 2023

Two separate IL stints spoiled an otherwise impressive bounce-back campaign for the Orioles slugging first baseman.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Ryan Mountcastle entered 2023 in hopes of putting his bad luck behind him. The previous season saw him hit the ball with more authority than ever before. And yet, his power numbers dipped, due—at least in some part—to the altered dimensions at Camden Yards. This past summer, he managed to improve in the slugging department and played some of the best baseball of his career, but this time it was his health that failed him.

The entire season was a battle for Mountcastle. He headed to spring training as the team’s incumbent at first base, but the organization made it quite clear that they had a platoon in mind for the position. The Orioles’ spring invitee list was littered with left-handed hitting first basemen, many with big league experience. Ultimately, none of them made the Opening Day squad and Mountcastle had a massive spring, OPS’ing 1.104 across 17 games of Grapefruit League action.

It was a fast start for Mountcastle. He played in every one of the Orioles’ first 11 games, crushing the ball to the tune of a .289/.320/.711 batting line with five home runs, four doubles, and 18 RBI. The bounce-back was well on its way. Then, his numbers started to fade.

From April 12 through June 8 (a span of 48 games played) Mountcastle hit just .213/.251/.355 with six home runs, nine walks, and 49 strikeouts. It was a tough watch. Mountcastle wasn’t really expanding the zone. He was simply whiffing more. His in-zone swing and miss rate increased from 15.2% in April to 21.1% in May and finally 33.3% in June. At the same time, his hard hit rate went from 47.4% to 43.8% and then 25% in those same three months.

Those struggles earned him a brief stay on the O’s bench before he was placed on the IL with vertigo. Mountcastle later disclosed that prior to his IL stint he was experiencing light-headedness and had a tough time seeing the baseball, describing it as “pea-sized” when he was in the batters box. No wonder he was having a tough time!

Mountcastle began his rehab stint with Triple-A Norfolk on June 21, nearly two weeks after his last appearance with the Orioles. His performance with the Tides was far from encouraging. Altogether he would play in 12 games for the affiliate and OPS just .572 before he was deemed ready to return to the big leagues on July 9.

At the same time, Ryan O’Hearn was making the first base position his own in Baltimore. Originally called up in mid-April as a bench piece that filled in the corner outfield spots and DH, O’Hearn had become the everyday first baseman in Mountcastle’s absence, occasionally sharing the spot with Anthony Santander. Across 23 games O’Hearn hit .333/.384/.539 with four home runs. It was tough to justify sending him back to bench just because a struggling Mountcastle was returning to the active roster.

Instead, manager Brandon Hyde largely instituted a platoon for the immediate future. In general, O’Hearn faced righties, Mountcastle faced lefties, but on occasion they would both be in the lineup.

It was a success. From July 9 through the end of the season, Orioles first basemen were some of the best in the bigs. They combined to hit .300/.352/.469 with 14 home runs. What they lacked in power for the position was somewhat made up for in their ability to put the ball in play and get on base.

Mountcastle was particularly productive. In July he OPS’d 1.011 and in August he OPS’d .984. Across both months he hit seven home runs, eight doubles, drove in 26 runs, walked 18 times and struck out 34 times. His hard hit rate went through the roof to 53.1% in July and 47.4% in August, his two best months of the season.

But along with the rest of the Orioles offense, Mountcastle slumped in September and carried that into the playoffs. He wasn’t helped by a late-season shoulder injury that required an IL stint. He went 0-for-14 in the five games prior to hitting the IL, missed two weeks, and returned for the final series of the regular season. His .577 OPS in September was only better than the .321 he OPS’d in June, a month in which he played just four games and struggled to see clearly.

October was more of the same. In the Orioles’ three-game sweep at the hands of the eventual World Series champion Rangers he went 2-for-11 with a double, two RBI, a walk, and four strikeouts. He was far from the only one to have a tough time that week.

When healthy this season, Mountcastle was a force in the middle of the Orioles lineup. His average exit velocity ticked up once again this season, and his launch angle lowered. His walk rate was the best of his career and his strikeout rate has improved in each of the last two seasons. This is a player that is trending in the right direction offensively.

But that isn’t the only area of his game with perceived value. Mountcastle got some recognition for his glovework as well. He was named a Gold Glove finalist at first base. Advanced metrics are split on whether he is valuable in the field or not. He was credited with two defensive runs saved and 1.5 UZR runs above average, but also -1 outs above average. First base isn’t a position full of fancy defense, and Mountcastle certainly doesn’t look like an exception in that way. But he does an admirable job over there, so it’s nice to see him get his flowers.

Mountcastle is due a sizeable raise this winter as he goes through arbitration for the first time. MLB Trade Rumors projects a jump from $738,400 to $4.2 million. That feels like a more than reasonable number to give a player that’s capable of 25+ home runs, seemingly plays Gold Glove-caliber defense, and provides sneaky value on the basepaths. He should not be a non-tender candidate. But it doesn’t preclude him from being on the trading block.

We know the Orioles favor positional flexibility. That isn’t something Mountcastle offers. And they also have a problem in the outfield where they have more talented players than they can keep on a roster. It is within the realm of possibility that the O’s could look to make the switch-hitting (and soon-to-be very expensive) Santander a more frequent option at first base. That suddenly eliminates the need for a platoon partner at the position. Mountcastle could continue to DH, but it sure would be nice to get Adley Rutschman more half-days in that role as well. You can start to see a problem here.

The Orioles do not need to trade Mountcastle. He is a good, productive player that helps your team win. But the free agent market is not exactly brimming with enticing position players, and Mountcastle would also include multiple cost-controlled years. The O’s could potentially get a lot back for him while freeing up space for Heston Kjerstad, Colton Cowser, and other young, talented players to get in the lineup and potentially improve it overall.

But in honesty, that prognosticating is probably coming a year early. The Orioles do not yet know if those players down on the farm can hack it in the big leagues. They will find out in 2024. But until then, they should hold onto a known commodity in Mountcastle, hope he can stay healthy, and keep on hitting the ball really, really hard.

2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Mike Baumann, Ramón Urías, Cole Irvin

Tomorrow: Danny Coulombe