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Oriole of the Day: Ryan Mountcastle lived up to reputation in tremendous rookie year

With MLB owners continuing to lock out the players as the two sides slowly work toward a new collective bargaining agreement, Orioles officials are barred from specifically discussing players on the team’s 40-man roster.

The Baltimore Sun, of course, faces no such stipulations. Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each Oriole, examining their 2021 seasons and what’s ahead for them in 2022, assuming the league and the players’ union eventually come together.

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Ryan Mountcastle shook off a horrific April to set the Orioles’ rookie record for home runs, pacing all first-year players in that category. That was just one of the ways he lived up to the reputation he carried as a prospect throughout his first full major league season.

Quick hits

2022 Opening Day age: 25

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2021 stats: .255/.309/.487, .796 OPS, 33 home runs, 27.5 K%, 7.0 BB%, 1.4 fWAR

Under team control through: 2026

2021 in review

Number to know: 7. After walking in nearly 8% of his plate appearances in his impressive but brief 2020 debut, Mountcastle came closing to matching it at 7% in a full 2021 season. Although that mark is not particularly exceptional, it’s higher than any walk rate he posted while in the minors, showing the plate discipline work the Orioles did with him at their alternate site in 2020 paid off. In fact, from late June through the end of the season, more than 10% of Mountcastle’s plate appearances resulted in walks.

What was good: Mountcastle opened the season by hitting .198 with one home run and a 31.3% strikeout rate in April. He responded by hitting 32 home runs over the next five months, and although he remained strikeout-prone, he improved his chase rate as the season went on. From June 1 to Sept. 1, Mountcastle hit .300/.361/.595 with 20 home runs.

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What wasn’t: Mountcastle was serviceable in left field during his 2020 major league stint — with his play out there another aspect the club focused on with him at the alternate site — but he seemed uncomfortable for much of his time as an outfielder in 2020. Despite not starting in left after late June and not playing consecutive games there since late May, Mountcastle’s minus-6 outs above average were tied for the third worst among the 98 players with at least 25 attempts in left, according to Statcast, and his minus-16% success rate added was the lowest of all left fielders. He rated poorly at first base as well, though the Orioles felt better as the season went on. Still, Mountcastle did little this season to shake the idea he’s best served as a designated hitter.

Looking ahead to 2022

Likely 2022 role: First baseman/designated hitter and middle-of-the-order hitter

What’s projected: Although an up-and-down campaign led to Mountcastle’s final numbers in 2021, Steamer and ZiPS both suggest a repeat performance as a likely outcome. Both projection systems see slight upticks in his average and on-base percentage with a minor dip in his slugging percentage, with both estimating he’ll make another run at 30 home runs. He would join Boog Powell and Manny Machado as the only Orioles with multiple 30-home run seasons at age 25 or younger.

A step forward: Mountcastle devoured left-handers’ fastballs (.735 slugging percentage) and more than handled their breaking balls (.521 slugging percentage), but they managed to neutralize him with change-ups. Nearly a quarter of the pitches Mountcastle saw from lefties were change-ups, and when he swung at them, he missed almost half the time; his 44.6% whiff rate was the second highest among batters who swung at 100 or more opposite-handed change-ups. Statcast also assigns a run value to each pitch, and on a per-100-pitches basis, Mountcastle was the worst change-up hitter in the majors, ranking seventh worst of any hitter against any pitch. Given Mountcastle’s success against other pitch types, improvement against off-speed offerings could lead to an even better sophomore season.

Three up, three down

This series is ordered based on the WAR, as measured by FanGraphs, each member of Baltimore’s 40-man roster produced in 2021. The past three players featured in the series were Austin Hays, Ramón Urías and Cole Sulser. The Orioles due up next are Tyler Wells, Jorge López and Anthony Santander.

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