About a month before Ryan Mountcastle’s major league debut, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was asked whether mastery of his new left field position was a prerequisite to be promoted or if the club would settle for calling him up primarily as a designated hitter.
“I’d rather not promote somebody as a DH,” Hyde said in July 2020. “Ever.”
Once Mountcastle joined Baltimore in late August, Hyde followed through on that, with Mountcastle making only two of his 36 starts at DH. But after Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Seattle Mariners, Mountcastle has been the designated hitter for six of the team’s first 11 games, and he was back at DH in Wednesday’s lineup. Four of his five starts in left field coincided with the games both Austin Hays and DJ Stewart were on the injured list for their respective hamstring strains.
Mountcastle said he’s still been training in the outfield before and during batting practice on days he’s been the DH, as he’s “just trying to get comfortable out there.” He’s picked the brains of Trey Mancini, who also came up as an infielder before transitioning to the outfield in the majors, and the Orioles’ primary outfielders, calling it “a group effort trying to become better.”
“I gotta keep working,” he said. “I am definitely not where I want to be yet. But I’m still working and trying to get better every day.”
Since being drafted as a high school shortstop in 2015′s first round, Mountcastle, 24, has worked his way down the defensive spectrum, moving to third, first and now to left. He began the 2020 season at the Orioles’ alternate training site in Bowie not only to hone his plate discipline, but also to get more repetition in the outfield, where he played only sparingly in earning 2019 International League MVP honors with Triple-A Norfolk.
Despite the lack of experience, Mountcastle was solid if not spectacular in left field in 2020. MLB’s Statcast system had him worth an even zero outs above average, with an added success rate of minus-1%.
But in the small sample size of four games out there in 2021 entering Tuesday, he was already worth minus-2 outs above average, and his negative 28% success rate added was the worst of 31 qualified left fielders.
The big detractors were a pair of plays that, as Hyde put it after Baltimore’s home opener, Mountcastle “wishes he would’ve made.” With the Orioles leading by one in the final game of their opening road trip, a sharp fly ball to left by New York Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez that could have been the final out of the eighth inning instead drifted away from Mountcastle and ticked off his glove.
New York tied the game later in the inning, though the Orioles managed to win in 11 innings with Mountcastle on the bench after being replaced defensively.
A day later, with Baltimore again holding a one-run lead, this time in the sixth inning at home against the Boston Red Sox, Mountcastle charged in on Christian Vázquez’s popup to left, only for a failed drive attempt to come up short. The soft fly had an expected batting average of .030 based on its exit velocity and launch angle, according to Statcast.
An inning earlier, both Mountcastle and center fielder Cedric Mullins dived for a hit looped to left-center. Had Mullins not made the catch, Mountcastle’s decision to dive likely would have led the ball going into the gap for an extra-base hit.
“Just sucks what’s happened the last couple days he’s been out there,” Orioles outfield coach Anthony Sanders said Tuesday. “A little setback, but the guy continues to work the right way. I think he’ll be fine. He just needs to get ran out there and keep building his confidence.”
After Thursday’s home opener, Mountcastle didn’t return to the outfield until Tuesday’s second game.
“I think he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself right now in the outfield,” Hyde said after the home opener. “It’s not from lack of effort or lack of the work he’s putting in. He’s putting in good work. He put in great work in spring training. Just the last couple of nights have been a little bit rough for him defensively. We believe in the player, we know Ryan wants to be a good defender, and it just hasn’t happened for him the last couple nights, but we’ll continue to work and improve.”
Sanders said Mountcastle has done that, specifically pointing to his jumps, routes and angles to balls while adding that he believes left field to be the hardest of the three outfield spots for a player to learn.
“I just know the last couple days, he’s just been a little timid and slow to make a quick decision,” Sanders said. “It’s a work in progress every day.”
Sanders also suggested that Mountcastle’s offensive struggles could have played a role in how he’s played defensively. He entered Tuesday with 17 hits in 38 at-bats, having struck out 17 times coming off consecutive three-strikeout games.
“He’s a young kid, still a rookie, and he’s worried about what he’s doing at the plate right now, and then it goes out to the defense,” Sanders said. “There’s those conversations, trying to separate the two.”
Hyde dropped Mountcastle from the heart of the order to sixth for both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader, hoping to relieve some pressure he might be facing. It seemed to work. With the Orioles down to their last out in the first game, Mountcastle laced a 110 mph double to left, eventually scoring the tying run. After doubling for a second straight at-bat his first time up in the second game, he delivered a game-tying single the other way his next plate appearance. He then stole his first career base.
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Ryan McKenna replaced Mountcastle defensively in the late innings, with the exit meaning he finished a game without a strikeout for the first time this season.
Mountcastle has hit at every level he’s been at, including a .333/.386/.492 batting line during his major league stint last year, so it seemed like it would be a matter of time before he turned it around at the plate. Hyde has expressed repeatedly that they believe he can do the same in the field. They just haven’t given him as many chances to do so in 2021, and fewer might be coming: Hyde said Tuesday that Hays is progressing in his recovery and could participate in game action soon at the Bowie alternate site.
“Ryan Mountcastle is going to face a ton of adversity this year,” Hyde said after Mountcastle’s three-hit day. “That’s just what happens in your second year. The league is not easy, and you’re going to have to make adjustments.
“Guys that are going to be part of championship clubs, you’ve got to make adjustments to this league because it’s so hard.”
Thursday, 1:05 p.m.
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