Halfway through his first major league season, Orioles rookie Ryan Mountcastle has been through the gamut. In April, no player with at least 90 plate appearances was less productive. When his turnaround was in full-swing in June, he was one of the best hitters in the league and earned American League Rookie of the Month honors.
That’s why Mountcastle regards the first three-plus months of his season as “OK” — the lows aren’t easy to overlook, but the highs aren’t easy to sustain. And as the Orioles’ youngest everyday player, the hard lessons are giving the rookie some perspective on how things have been — and what’s still to come.
“I think it just happens to everyone,” Mountcastle said. “You kind of go through it and especially at this level, it happens to everyone. You’re going to go through bad months — sometimes a bad year. It just happens. It’s just staying confident in yourself, it’s a cliché, but keep working hard and try to figure out it is that was going wrong. So it’s a lot of factors, but I guess the main one is just trusting your ability and knowing that you’re up here for a reason.”
For Mountcastle, 24, the struggles were unforeseen. He made his major league debut before the halfway mark of last year’s shortened season and hit .333 with an .878 OPS and five home runs to earn AL Rookie of the Year votes. It was expected he’d play well again this year, but he struggled out of the gate and was batting .198 with a .515 OPS at the end of April.
“I’d say the first couple weeks, I’m like, ‘All right, it’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows.’” Mountcastle said. “Last year, I thought I did well, but they get a scouting report on you and they’re the best players in the world. They know what they’re doing and they know how to attack you.”
The struggles were somewhat unique for Mountcastle, who was getting challenged with pitches in the strike zone and swinging through them with alarming frequency. He wasn’t walking much, but laying off pitchers’ pitches doesn’t accomplish much when they can get you out in the strike zone.
Mountcastle started to climb out of the hole in May, but said it wasn’t until the Toronto Blue Jays visited in mid-June when he started to feel like himself again.
“I finally started to feel like I was seeing the ball well and getting my pitch to hit and laying off the crap they were throwing,” Mountcastle said. “Then, when we went there I had a bunch of walks, but I felt like I was having good, competitive at-bats.”
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He hit three home runs June 19 to raise his OPS to 59 points in one night, and kept hitting from there. His season line peaked on June 28 in Houston, when he was batting .269 with a .787 OPS. A slow spell entering the All-Star break had him batting .255 with a .752 OPS and 14 home runs entering Friday night’s game at Kansas City.
Mountcastle said he’s hoping to build on what he’s done of late to get to a six-month sample that would exceed the middling grade he gave the first half. He believes he’s capable of batting around .300 with 25 to 30 home runs, something that would be difficult average-wise but certainly achievable on the power front.
Now that he’s no longer a hitter pitchers want to attack, the plate discipline the Orioles focused on with his development last year is coming into play for him to force pitchers back into the strike zone.
“You’ve got to be able to drive the ball,” Mountcastle said. “That’s my game, so I can’t be swinging at stuff out of the zone.”
Being closer to that hitter than the one who was floundering in April will bring more acclaim to the Orioles’ young corner bat, and judging by the praise manager Brandon Hyde gave him earlier this month, there could be more to come.
“I don’t think he’s even close to scratching the surface on the kind of hitter he can be,” Hyde said. “You’ve seen in the last month what happens when he swings at the strike zone, when he swings at strikes. I’m really happy and proud of him the progress he’s made from April until now. He’s put in a ton of work understanding what he needed to do to get better.
“He was frustrated really in April. I think he was pressing, too, which made him chase a little bit more than normal. And just kind of got back to a real simple approach, worked on it daily and you see the damage he can do when he swings at strikes.”