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The Orioles will decide when Ryan Mountcastle is a big leaguer. Here’s how he made sure he’d become one.

Ryan Mountcastle, right, takes infield practice at first base alongside Trey Mancini at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 13, 2020.
Ryan Mountcastle, right, takes infield practice at first base alongside Trey Mancini at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 13, 2020.(Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Ryan Mountcastle can’t control when he’ll finally be a big leaguer. That hasn’t stopped him from fashioning himself into one.

The Orioles’ most prolific hitting prospect has pushed beyond his comfort zone to remake his entire game, from his swing to his size, driven by a spirit that always had the next step of his career in mind.

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He used to eat himself sick and hit until his hands bled, but eventually found a plan that created the prolific power hitter and highly touted prospect he is today. All of that hard work has made his major league call-up a matter of when, not if.

“Ryan’s kind of a poster-boy for exactly what a minor league player should do,” said Chas Pippitt, who has worked with Ryan at his hitting facility, Baseball Rebellion, in North Carolina for four winters.

“If you’re going to play a high-level sport like that, you have to be very strong where you’re weak,” said Ben DeLaCruz, Mountcastle’s trainer. “He just attacked what he was weak at, and that made what he was already good at better.”

‘Literally eating himself sick’

Mountcastle, a 2015 first-round pick, was drafted for his hand-eye skills and the possibility of what his 6-foot-2 frame could become. The pick was compensation for losing slugger Nelson Cruz in free agency. It took some dreaming to see a world where he could replicate Cruz’s game.

When Derek Goodwin, Mountcastle’s high school coach at Hagerty High in Oviedo, Florida, first brought the freshman to varsity, he estimates that Mountcastle weighed 130 pounds. He still sent video to major college coaches with messages that proved prophetic.

“He’s going to pop,” Goodwin told them. “It’s just strength. His eye-hand coordination, length through contact, just bat-to-ball ability was just so good. And you knew the body was going to fill out.”

At first, it didn’t. Mountcastle said he was a “scrawny little guy.” He wanted to hit for power, and tried anything to add weight, including “these crazy weight-gainer shakes" featuring two scoops of weight-gain powder, ice cream and chocolate syrup.

Rather than stick to his bones, they sat in his stomach.

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“Bro, what’s going on?” Goodwin asked as he dragged one day.

“To keep any weight, I have to almost stuff myself,” Mountcastle answered.

Said Goodwin: “It was getting to a point where it was so hard for him to do it that he was literally eating himself sick.”

He eventually kicked the shakes and added weight, ending up around 170 pounds for the draft.

“Until he got stronger and until he really started to fill out, the power was something you dreamed on,” Goodwin said. “What you didn’t ever dream on was he could hit. At 130 pounds, he could hit. Now at 215, 220 pounds, he can still hit.”

Ryan Mountcastle watches a hit during batting practice at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 19, 2020.
Ryan Mountcastle watches a hit during batting practice at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 19, 2020.(Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The swing

Before he had a power-hitter’s body, he sought a power-hitter’s swing. The one he carried into pro ball and his first year at Low-A Delmarva in 2016 was a “pretty violent, sort-of hard” swing without the best path to the ball, he said, though his hands allowed him to catch up to fastballs while waiting to recognize spin.

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A .745 OPS and 42 extra-base hits in an age-19 season at Delmarva isn’t the product of someone who can’t hit; he just hit differently.

A skeptical Mountcastle hit at Baseball Rebellion in December 2016 for the first time. On their website, they tout themselves as Silicon Valley meets America’s Pastime. His spray chart from their cage showed a bunch of dots right at the shortstop or short of the left-field fence. They had plenty for him to alter.

“I just said, ‘Whatever, change is good sometimes,' ” Mountcastle recalled. “Being uncomfortable is good sometimes.”

Their work was mostly mechanical, transitioning from a hip-hinge swing to a side-bend swing, “something that is just radically undertaught and under-understood,” Pippitt said.

The point, Mountcastle said, was to put his body in a position to drive the ball in the air with backspin. Big leaguers and top prospects alike have shown that the fastest way to the top is to elevate pull-side pitches, Pippitt said.

Mountcastle bought into their techniques, including the proprietary Rebel’s Rack hitting tool, a piece of metal that tucks under a players arms to simulate the upper body rotation of a swing without a bat.

Before, Pippitt said, Mountcastle would try and fix a bad day by hitting postgame until his hands bled. Now, he does rotational work and movement exercises to best get him into position to correct his mistakes instead of just hitting for hitting’s sake.

Mountcastle brought his new swing to minor league camp that spring and met heavy skepticism from the team’s coaches.

“But I trusted myself, and I knew that my swing felt really good,” Mountcastle said. “I took into that year and had a really good year. Sometimes, you’ve got to trust in yourself as opposed to others.”

He began at High-A Frederick in 2017, where he hit a majority of the 48 doubles that would lead the minors. He hit 15 home runs in 88 games for the Keys that summer before an overwhelming transition to a more advanced level with a new position — third base.

His return to Double-A Bowie in 2018 proved that the level wasn’t beyond him. Next would be Norfolk in the Triple-A International League — a grown man’s league. He resolved to enter 2019 with the body of one.

Ryan Mountcastle spent some time in the outfield as the Orioles try to find a way to get his bat in the lineup.
Ryan Mountcastle spent some time in the outfield as the Orioles try to find a way to get his bat in the lineup.(Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The body

Mountcastle found DeLaCruz, a former football player better known for training athletes, because he was training Mountcastle’s younger brother. It was different from anything he’d done before. He loved it.

The first workout was a structural balance assessment, where Mountcastle squatted, jumped, and landed on ForceDecks force plate technology that measured the imbalances in his body.

“For him being such a powerful swinger, his right lower hip and back always tend to get tight on him and start getting out of place a little bit,” DeLaCruz said, noting that would sap hitting power power. Overuse and not enough strength impacted his upper back, and there was a major difference between his arms.

“Oh wow, this is a little eye-opening,” Mountcastle remembered. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with my body. But we went to work.”

Fixing those imbalances was the trainer’s priority. Mountcastle wanted to get stronger.

His previous workouts focused on light-weight exercises and mobility. Mountcastle added heavier lifting ahead of the 2019 season, and the result was 30 pounds of muscle that Pippitt notes wasn’t the kind that didn’t prevent him from rotating the way his swing was meant to, either.

Upon Mountcastle’s visit to Baseball Rebellion that February, the feedback from coaches there was a testament to everyone’s work. “What have you been doing? Your exit velocity is out of this world.” He texted DeLaCruz the good news.

The resulting season at Triple-A Norfolk (.312 with an .871 OPS, 25 home runs, and 35 doubles) was good enough to make him International League Most Valuable Player.

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Ryan Mountcastle takes infield practice at first base at the Ed Smith Stadium complex Feb. 13, 2020
Ryan Mountcastle takes infield practice at first base at the Ed Smith Stadium complex Feb. 13, 2020(Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

‘This is the year’

The award and news that he wouldn’t be a September call-up came concurrently, with the Orioles delaying his arrival until this year, when he’d be put on the 40-man roster.

Mountcastle didn’t mope, letting others grumble about the fact that he went to Camden Yards to be honored as their Minor League Player of the Year instead of as a big leaguer.

He immediately advised Goodwin of how he hoped they’d train from a baseball sense instead.

“On the long days of defense, we were going third to second to first to left just in case — just the defensive side when we would do it was taking the kid an hour and a half a day, before we even hit,” Goodwin said. “And that didn’t include what he was doing in the weight room. He was putting in extremely long days to try to get himself the best shot to go in.”

Mountcastle wasn’t going to let his search for a position be an excuse not to call him up anymore, and resolved to improve his throwing arm. Even as he’s grown into, physically, what teammate Austin Hays calls “a donkey,” Mountcastle got faster to aid his recent transition to the outfield.

“He said, ‘This is what they’re saying I can’t do. I’m going to go prove people wrong.’ ” Goodwin said. “You start to see the character of a person when people start telling you the things you need to improve on.”

Everyone who worked with Mountcastle said that that mindset isn’t a new one. His parents divorced but remarried and are more than cordial, giving him two supportive families. He’s dated his girlfriend, Taylor Scalora, since he was in high school. He’s confident but carries himself humbly, having done most of the offseason work that’s propelled him to the cusp of the majors in silence.

He views it as an investment in himself, and it’s paid off. In his most recent visit to Baseball Rebellion, his average exit velocity has risen nearly three miles per hour since his trip in 2016, with his max up from 100.5 mph to 110.8. His average launch angle has increased from nine degrees to 26.

None of it might make a difference when it comes to where he starts 2020. Mountcastle is already on the 40-man roster, but the team could delay his arrival in the majors for a few weeks or a month for reasons that have everything to do with him having an extra year of club control and delaying salary arbitration. His less-than-ideal strikeout-to-walk rate (101-to-446 in 524 career minor league games) and inexperience in left field would again be the baseball justifications, even if they pale in comparison to what he does well.

“Just going into last year, I thought I had a good shot at possibly making the team toward the end of the year,” Mountcastle said. “It didn’t happen. A little upset, but whatever. I went into this offseason like, ‘Alright. This is the year. This is going to be it. I worked my butt off, and we’re here now.’”

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