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Breaking down how the Orioles’ vaunted corner bats have begun the season | ANALYSIS

Entering this season, and perhaps going forward as well, the Orioles had more corner bats than they had spots for them in the lineup. Injuries to outfielders DJ Stewart and Austin Hays, plus Rio Ruiz’s move to second base, have opened more playing time for everyone who needs it. But that calculus will change with Hays’ pending return, and he’ll come into a group that’s still largely trying to find its form.

Of the five full-time corner players who have been at manager Brandon Hyde’s disposal all year — Trey Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Maikel Franco and DJ Stewart — only Franco is hitting at a level near expectations, and in some ways exceeding them. That’s contributed to an inconsistent overall offense that has left the team frustrated through the first 10% of the season.

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That’s still a small sample to glean anything about a player’s long-term production, but within these 16 games, there’s plenty to tell what’s contributing to those struggles and just how easily fixable they are.

Trey Mancini

With the Orioles’ inspirational first baseman, the comeback from stage 3 colon cancer and subsequent return to baseball has made any struggles at the plate particularly difficult from the player’s perspective. Hyde has constantly tried to give Mancini days off and spoken of how much pressure he’s putting on himself.

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If there’s been a difference in Mancini from his earlier form, it’s his batted ball luck — specifically when it comes to ground balls. There could be underlying causes that have his ground ball rate up to 58.5% this year from 45.9% in 2019, according to FanGraphs, and a spike in pull rate (56.1% from 38.5%) that indicate he’s not on time and rolling over balls too often. But two of the 24 ground balls he’s hit this year have been hits for a .080 average; he had a .233 batting average on ground balls in 2019.

Two ground ball singles a week for six months versus two in three weeks can have a big affect on morale, and the same goes for one or two sneaking through with a runner on first base to create a scoring situation instead of an inning-ending double play. So while the elevation of pulled ground balls is a bit of a red flag, the results are as poor as that type of batted ball production would expect. It’s about simply cutting down on them now.

Anthony Santander

Using pitch location data from MLB’s Statcast tracking system, BaseballSavant.com credits and debits hitters for the expected runs gained or lost from swing decisions based on the expected run value of where a pitch comes in.

Of 300 hitters qualified in this statistic, Santander ranks fifth-worst with minus-7 runs coming from his swing decisions. Not only is he actually chasing more despite designs to increase his walk rate, but he’s not doing damage on pitches in the zone. His swings on pitches over the heart of the plate have been worth minus-3 runs in 2021 versus plus-4 runs in 2020.

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There’s an element to Santander being pitched tougher, as Hyde said this weekend, and that shows with how he’s already at minus-6 runs on the “shadow” at the edges inside and outside the strike zone.

There’s simply an element of Santander not producing on the types of pitches that middle-of-the-order pitchers are supposed to produce on, and if those pitches are harder to come by, it puts more pressure on a hitter to drive them when he gets them — or to try and drive something that’s not over the plate.

Ryan Mountcastle

In the chicken-and-egg conundrum of whether the 24-year-old Mountcastle is a talented hitter with power or just a power hitter, the smart money has always gone to the former. This year, he’s struggled to fit either bill, and the question is which will return first.

His batted ball profile shows that the power-producing contact is similar to what it was last year, even with some regression in his approach dragging everything down. Mountcastle’s expected slugging percentage of .430 in 2020 was a bit below the .492 he actually posted, according to Statcast, and that has swung hard the other way this year. His expected slugging percentage is .409, which is still lower than normal, but he’s slugging .295 in games — which suggests there’s better days ahead.

He’s still hitting the ball plenty hard and has had several deep drives result in outs lately, but his average launch angle climbing from 10.8 degrees to 18.7 means he’s just getting under the ball and keeping them in the yard. Someone as in-tune with his swing as Mountcastle is won’t struggle to find a solution there.

Maikel Franco

Signed in spring training as a right-handed corner bat who can play third and first base, Franco has been pretty much as advertised in terms of his career production and batted ball profile.

The only major difference is his walk rate jumping from 6.6% to 10.6%, which Franco said is the result of a concerted effort to get on base more. According to Statcast’s swing data, he’s swinging at 54% of pitches on the “shadow,” down from 56% in 2020, while swinging at “chase” and “waste” pitches way out of the zone 19% and 10% of the time, respectively, as opposed to 26% and 11% last season.

How much of a difference will Franco walking 20-something times make in the course of the season? Individually, probably not much. But for an Orioles offense that seems to need so much to fall into place for big innings to come sans a home run, any time a player gets on base will be considered a positive. He’s adding ways to be able to do that.

DJ Stewart

Because of his hamstring injury that delayed the start of his season, Stewart has about half the plate appearances of anyone else in this group. He’s still doing a lot of the things that made him a real contender for these corner at-bats that he did last September. By batting .250 with a .756 OPS, Stewart doesn’t have the over-the-fence power back yet, but is still the team’s most productive hitter since last Sept. 1.

Put that month and what he’s done so far together, and Stewart is batting .235 with an .866 OPS in that span. Only José Iglesias, now a Los Angeles Angel, has been better in an Orioles uniform in that span.

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What will keep Stewart in the lineup, even as the crunch of corner bats hits, is his on-base ability. Even if he’s stopping himself from completing the thought, Hyde has occasionally referred to Stewart as having the ability to work a walk and done so in contrast to the hitters on his team who simply don’t. And in an offense that can fluctuate its productivity the way the Orioles’ has, that’s a valuable trait to have in the lineup as often as possible.

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