As the Orioles’ minor league hitting coaches work with Ryan Mountcastle at the team’s secondary training in Bowie, they use the best baseball player in the world as an example for the Orioles’ top power-hitting prospect to emulate when it comes to his swing decisions at the plate: Mike Trout.
Trout, hitting coach Tom Eller said, is the best because he only swings at good pitches. As the Orioles work on Mountcastle’s plate discipline at Bowie instead of letting him learn at the major league level, it’s another example of the organization using data and progressive, individualized player development plans to put their players in the best position to succeed in the big leagues — whenever that might be.
“Having that objective data helps to be able to show him specifically where he’s doing well and where he’s not, just for his thought process to try and clean up a little more, because he understands the concept,” Anthony Villa, another hitting coach at the site, said. “He’s giving away at-bats, in a sense, if he’s chasing everything. But on the flip side, we’re not trying to fence in a wild horse. We want Ryan to continue to be aggressive. His No. 1 carrying tool is his damage ability, and we certainly don’t want to hinder that.”
The continued presence of Mountcastle, a former first-round pick and the reigning Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year, at the secondary camp comes at the expense of his much-anticipated major league debut, and to an Orioles team that has gotten meager production from its outfield.
When Mountcastle started the year at the secondary camp, some expected him to be called up a week into the season the way several other well-regarded prospects around the league were, especially after the date passed that allowed clubs to delay a player’s free agency for another year. The Orioles, though, have maintained that Mountcastle’s wait is about development.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said this was “a unique opportunity to get some real development done,” both with his plate discipline and at his new position in left field. Mountcastle is getting targeted coaching at both.
His day begins with mobility work and training to get his body ready for the day, and then early hitting work in the cage or on the field. Mountcastle has the added benefit of working with Eller, who also trained with hitting coach Chas Pippitt at Baseball Rebellion and knows the swing style and mechanics that Mountcastle embraced on his climb through the minor leagues.
Mountcastle’s power-oriented swing, combined with a natural bat-to-ball ability that allows him to get to all kinds of pitches, sometimes work against the selective nature of a developing player. He has walked in just 4.6% of his minor league plate appearances.
Using years of TrackMan data from his climb through the minors, coaches are showing how teams have pitched to Mountcastle in the past, which pitches he does the most damage on, and the ones that, even if he’s able to get his bat on, aren’t as productive. In batting practice, they challenge him with high fastballs and low breaking balls to reinforce that instruction. There’s typically challenges or game-like situations for the hitters at that time, which come before simulated games.
“It’s more along the lines of if you think you can‘t hit this ball really hard, then we’re going to take the pitch — even if it’s a strike,” Eller said. “Our job is to match up his heat zones, his hot and cold zones, and where he does the most damage. That is somewhat of a problem, because he can hit the ball very hard at a lot of different angles in a lot of different locations.”
The results, the coaches say, have been evident from the start. He’s among the leaders in their swing-decision rankings and production in the intrasquad games, and walked three times in their first game.
“If you want to improve behavior, you encourage that behavior,” Villa said. “Just incentivizing it has already cleaned up some of the swing decision abilities.”
The power is still there, too. Both Eller and Villa pointed to a home run Mountcastle hit to straight-away center field on a high riding fastball from Eric Hanhold. It wasn’t in the strike zone, but was still a pitch he could handle.
“He felt like he could hit a homer on that pitch, and he did. We by no means want to hinder that ability,” Villa said.
Britton said he’s been “terrorizing pitching” at the Bowie site.
“He’s been, offensively, just an animal,” he said. “Ball comes off his bat, and he’s hitting balls where the big boys hit balls.”
The defensive work is just as focused, though they aren’t building on an existing strength. A lifelong infielder, Mountcastle was introduced to the outfield midway through last season. He worked there daily in the offseason and in spring training, but it’s still been judged as an area of need.
In the daily individual defense sessions, the coaches replicate everything he could see in a game — slicing line drives into the corner, backspin balls that carry over his head, and everything in between. He works on his first step and fielding ground balls, and the over-the-top arm action that’s required from the outfield.
“We’re really working on making sure he’s getting the correct spin when he throws, and we have a lot of visual cues for him,” Eller said. “He uses a striped baseball so he can see the spin axis of the ball when he throws. But I think just live reps, he can pick it up — he has picked it up. I think he’s gotten tremendous results in the last two weeks, especially with his footwork on ground balls and how he fields it is a lot different than fielding ground balls in the infield.”
Britton said he can tell Mountcastle is “taking it serious in left.”
“He’s doing a much better job,” he said. “He’s getting a little more comfortable out there, his routes are getting better to balls. He’s really putting in the work — especially during batting practice.”
For everyone at the camp, and especially Mountcastle, there’s not only the incentive of achieving the goals set for this period of development, but to make sure he has the skills to succeed once he gets to the majors.
“The biggest point of emphasis we’re making is, ‘Hey, when you get that opportunity, let’s make sure that you’re ready so you can seize the moment,’” Britton said. “You can sit down here and go through the motions whether it’s for two weeks, three weeks, a month, and if there is opportunity and a need for somebody to go up there and you haven’t been giving it your full attention up here, it’s not going to be pretty. And that’s going to be what those coaches remember.
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“You have no choice but to be ready.”