A year into their time with Ryan Mountcastle, the Orioles are learning what the player himself has known for years and confirming what their scouts initially saw in him: Ryan Mountcastle can hit.
As the 2015 first-round pick, selected 36th overall with a compensation pick for departed free agent Nelson Cruz, winds down his year with the Class-A Delmarva Shorebirds, his progress has moved him perhaps right behind Double-A catcher Chance Sisco when ranking the most talented hitting prospects in the Orioles' system.
"He's really gifted as far as offensively, at the plate," Shorebirds manager Ryan Minor said. "He's a big, strong, physical kid. But his hands are really good in his swing, and he's got a really good approach of what he wants to do at such a young age. … From [Fall Instructional League last year] to now, he physically matured a little bit and he's really been able to sustain his level of confidence and withstand the ups and downs of a long season. That's been the biggest contributor to his success, his ability to understand the highs and lows of the game and just keep pulling from there, being more consistent as the season wears on."
Mountcastle, 19, has been one of the brightest parts of the Orioles' farm system this season when it comes to his bat. Through Monday, he's hitting .285/.327/.427 with nine home runs and 23 doubles as one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League, maintaining what's been a standout full-season debut into the final weeks of the year.
In a pair of games last week against Lakewood, Mountcastle was far and away the best-looking hitter on the Shorebirds team. He showed an approach that was advanced for his age, using the knowledge that his bat was quick enough to catch up to and at least fight off fastballs in the zone and to sit on off-speed pitches, especially with two strikes. Both of his hits, plus a sacrifice fly to deep left field, came in such situations, when Mountcastle sat back on a breaking ball and drove the pitch.
That approach, and how the bat speed and hit tool displayed on the high school showcase scene have translated to professional ball, are what makes the 19-year-old's first full season in professional ball so impressive. It didn't start out this way.
A month into the season, Mountcastle was batting .162, but almost immediately turned it around. Remove that slow start, and Mountcastle is batting .311 since May 1.
"It's a lot more difficult," Mountcastle said of the adjustment. "Obviously, pitchers are a lot better. They know what they're doing out there. Going through a full season, almost finishing up the season here, it's a lot more of a physical and mental grind than I could have ever thought of. Just going through it, it's exciting. … I've learned that I can do this, and I've learned that I'm supposed to be here, and there's time where I'm just doubting myself and I've got to stay level-headed and have that confidence that I can really do this and be good at it."
Both Minor and Mountcastle believe the key to stopping slumps like April's is in Mountcastle's knowledge of himself and his swing,
"It's little things I'll pick up watching video, or even feel in my swing — maybe I'm cutting under balls or doing something different," Mountcastle said. "It's more at-bat to at-bat, or pitch to pitch now than game to game. In the beginning of the year, I struggled for about a month or so. But after finding little tweaks here and there, the slumps or supposed slumps are less prolonged."
"For him to go out and have some lows and some failures at times, both offensively and defensively, to be able to come out of that at such a young age as quickly as he has and then go on hot streaks and sustain that for a while, it's just a tribute to his physical and mental ability to handle those things," Minor said. "And for his age, to be able to do that so quickly, it's just going to be a sign of hopefully good things to come in the future pretty quick."
The manager's mention of defense, however, raises one of the only questions that have emerged in Mountcastle's game. There's power in his right-handed bat if he continues to physically develop — he already has nine home runs this year and gap power that can turn into over-the-fence power as he matures. He's made 19 errors this season at shortstop, though, with an arm many consider unfit for the position that's sometimes inhibited by his hands as he fields grounders.
Mountcastle said he feels "a lot more confident" at the position than he did when he was drafted a year ago, with his arm strength increasing and hands improving.
"Right now he's a shortstop," Minor said. "Long term, who knows? … For him, if he gets any bigger and a little older, he might have to change a position, maybe move to corner infield or corner outfield, but as of now, he's done everything he can to get better every day and work on a lot of different things.
"From Day One to now, he's way better than he was when he started. It's a work in progress. Obviously, a lot of times it is with 19-year-old kids in the South Atlantic League. For him defensively, it's one of those things where he has to be consistent with his work and build on his arm strength and go out every day and work on his footwork. For that to all come together to the point where he's at now has been a tremendous stride for him."