Mason McCoy, the unassuming shortstop who has taken the Orioles’ farm system by storm this season, has a unique feature to his ritual before he begins an at-bat.
"I tell myself, under my breath, ‘You’re one of the best hitters in this league,’ " McCoy said.
Whether it’s true because he says it, or he says it because it’s true, it’s been the case at both of McCoy’s two stops this season: first at High-A Frederick and more recently at Double-A Bowie, where he will represent the Baysox in Wednesday’s Eastern League All-Star Game.
He hit .379 with a .925 OPS in a month in Frederick and carried his success to Bowie, where he enters the All-Star break batting .319/.390/.418 in 56 games. His 118 hits through Sunday’s games are the most of any minor leaguer.
At 24, McCoy has risen quickly through the Orioles’ farm system despite being a senior signee out of Iowa who received a modest bonus after being selected in the sixth round of the 2017 draft.
"I think it gives you confidence," McCoy said. "You've got to be able to get up to the plate and trust yourself.
“I might be 0-for-8 my last eight [at-bats] or whatever it may be, but it gives me that confidence, like I deserve to be here and it calms me when I’m at the plate. When you’re doing well, you already have that confidence and you can go up there and say, ‘I know I’m going to get it done.’ That’s where it sucks if you’re struggling. If you’re hitting .180, it’s hard to be like, ‘I’m one of the best hitters in this league.’ But you’ve got to trust yourself knowing that you are.”
McCoy began that small feature of his routine in 2018 at Low-A Delmarva, when he was struggling badly at the start of the season. He made his assignment to Short-A Aberdeen look easy the year before, but was batting .182 in late April in his first taste of full-season ball and needed a way out of it.
He was consistently hitting the ball hard, but at people, so he told himself he was “one of the best players right now at hitting the ball hard,” and it worked. He hit .282 in the second half to finish strong, and was armed with two key pieces of knowledge that have driven his 2019 breakout.
The first became evident early last season, when unencumbered by a year-round baseball schedule for the first time in his life, McCoy said he "didn't know what to do for the six months" between seasons. He started hitting late and realized he didn't have any rhythm early in the season, so he started sooner this offseason, and "noticed a huge difference."
"I was taking pitches, working walks," he said. "I don't think I walked the year before in spring training. ... This one, I saw the ball a lot better, and it's been just carrying over."
"I don't know what his preparation was coming into last year, but I think it being his first full season last year, sometimes it's a grind and you don't always get off to a good start and it's a fight all the way through the year," Frederick manager Ryan Minor said. "This year, getting off to a good start really helps. It helps the confidence. It helps your ability to come to the ballpark every day ready to play."
McCoy also has an approach that’s tailored perfectly to the defensive shifts that have taken over even the minor leagues. McCoy said he was a “pull-hitter only” in high school and college, and found he hit into the shift often at Delmarva.
McCoy told himself: " ‘Man, I’ve really got to focus on this, because everyone’s got to pound me away. If I could just flick a ball over there and take my hit, it’s fine. It’s a hit. I’m getting on base, and we’ve got the big guys up in the lineup who are hitting me in.’
“I focused big time on that this offseason by trying to just work with the tee around, tosses around, and when I get up to bat, I look at the defense and see where everyone’s at. ... Legitimately, I just try to hit the ball where they aren’t playing.”
It might not have been who McCoy was when he was starring at Iowa, but he’s found it’s helping him immensely now. According to FanGraphs, he went the other way on 44% of his batted balls at Frederick and 45.1% for Bowie, up from 35.6% a year ago. By comparison, the highest opposite-field rate among qualifiers in the big leagues is Miguel Rojas of the Miami Marlins at 33.7%.
“He kind of knows who he is,” said Bowie manager Buck Britton, who also had McCoy last year at Delmarva. “He’s not going to go up there and try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, and I think with guys like that it’s a little easier because that’s just his game. His game is to make contact and get on base.