In each of the past two years, the Orioles have preached plate discipline as a means of improvement for top young hitters Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle. Same goes for Anthony Santander, their most productive hitter last year, who is trying to be more discerning at the plate this spring.
Though they’re each learning to be more selective at the big league level, their lower chase rate isn’t designed for them to walk more often as much as it’s meant to help them focus on the pitches they can get a barrel on and drive.
Hitting coach Don Long said Monday that both Hays and Mountcastle are making progress, but by setting the standard the way he is, it illuminates an aspect of the 2021 Orioles that might make it difficult for the offense to take the next step.
This isn’t going to be a team that gets on base often, and as much excitement and power as there might be in some of their corner bats, that’s going to be limiting in terms of just how much they can produce.
“As far as the walks go, to me the way you walk is by being ready to hit,” Long said. “But it’s also having the discipline to hit within your [plan], strikes first but then be able to hit the part of the plate where you can really hit the ball hard.
“A pitcher’s mindset is, when there’s danger in the zone, thinking about it from a pitcher’s perspective, that’s when more mistakes have a tendency to occur — mistakes in the zone and big misses out of the zone. So, walks are a byproduct of really knowing that: ‘I’m moving the bat on pitches to hit in the zone, and I’m hitting the ball hard,’ so the pitcher either tries to do more and has a big miss or tries to do more and has a bad miss for him in the zone, and we’re putting the ball in play hard.”
For hitters who have an ability to get their bat on a lot of pitches the way Hays and Mountcastle do, that’s a worthwhile approach. It’s much more difficult to turn players who don’t walk often into those that do, though Hays has materially improved at that in the past few years.
But those two are part of a team that, for years, hasn’t featured many on-base threats in a traditional sense. Over the past five full seasons (excluding 2020′s 60-game season), the league-average on-base percentages in the American League have been .317, .320, .322, .317 and .322.
The Orioles don’t have many hitters who project to be even league-average by those standards in 2021. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA forecast has only Trey Mancini (. 328 projected OBP), DJ Stewart (. 320) and Chance Sisco (. 328) above the .320 mark. At FanGraphs, Mancini, Mountcastle, Sisco, Stewart and Ramón Urías are projected above that level.
Manager Brandon Hyde will have everyday at-bats for Mancini and Mountcastle, but Stewart and Sisco don’t project to play every day, leaving an even greater disadvantage in terms of how they get on base.
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That’s partially why the Orioles offense, despite plenty of interesting pieces at the top of the lineup, isn’t projected to be among the league’s most productive. PECOTA has the Orioles scoring 699 runs, fourth fewest in baseball. FanGraphs has it faring better with the ninth fewest at 753.
A true table-setter atop the lineup could help that, but it will take a significant leap for anyone on the Orioles to earn that distinction.
Perhaps Hays and Santander can translate the plate discipline they’ve shown in spring training, and maybe with the confidence and success that Cedric Mullins is having batting only left-handed, he can be a more consistent on-base threat at the top of the lineup.
Mullins had a .340 on-base percentage in the minors as a left-handed hitter, and that mark is .305 from the left side in the big leagues. Having to hit left-on-left could drag that down some, though Hyde and Long are impressed with how he’s looked so far this spring.
What will limit the Orioles is that their best hitters are also the ones who get on base the most, or at least have the potential to. They should all bat near the top of the order, but there will be pressure on them to get on base and produce before the bottom of the lineup comes up.
Hyde said Monday that he felt comfortable with the idea that Mancini, Santander and Mountcastle will all be in the mix in the second, third and fourth spots in the order.
“I’m trying to put the best four hitters in the top four spots from a lineup standpoint,” he said. “I like the leadoff guy to be an on-base guy, and two, three, four, to be your best hitters in no particular order. That’s probably going to be a matchup situation.”