For all the aspects of the Houston Astros’ success that the Orioles are trying to duplicate in their rebuild, there is one in particular manager Brandon Hyde has fixated on of late: plate discipline.
No team has struck out fewer times than Houston. Few have walked more. The Astros lead the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The Orioles, meanwhile, have the fourth-fewest walks and third-lowest on-base percentage in the league.
That’s what makes rookie slugger Ryan Mountcastle’s recent stretch so encouraging. For the first time as a major leaguer, Mountcastle has walked in three straight games. That span directly follows the Orioles’ first meetings of the year with Houston.
“You watch those [Astros] at-bats, those guys do not chase outside of the strike zone,” Hyde said. “And that’s why they don’t strike out. That’s why they do damage; they’re really good players, but also they draw walks, and they’re tough to pitch to and, you know, Yordan Álvarez, [Carlos] Correa, those guys, they can not chase, and I think it’s good for some of our hitters to see that, too, and I think Ryan recognized that, also, of the more you can shrink your strike zone, the more success you’re going to have.
“Ryan’s young enough, he can improve on it, and I’ve been really encouraged by the last week or two of his swing decisions.”
Mountcastle’s four walks in the first three games of Baltimore’s series with the Toronto Blue Jays matched his total from the previous 48 games. Only three times in the minors did Mountcastle have a three-game base-on-balls streak, most recently in July 2018 with Double-A Bowie.
The other two times, one of which was a four-game streak, came early in his first full professional season in 2016 with Low-A Delmarva. He drew 40% of his walks for the year in those seven games.
For all of his offensive prowess, Mountcastle has never shown an acumen for walking. Even as he earned International League Most Valuable Player honors with Triple-A Norfolk in 2019, his 4.3% walk rate was the fifth lowest of any player with at least 500 plate appearances in the upper minors.
In addition to working on his outfield defense, that’s why the Orioles kept him at their alternate training site much of last season, hoping to round out his offensive package with improved plate discipline. The early results were encouraging; Mountcastle walked in 7.9% of his plate appearances in a successful first major league stint, the highest rate in any season of his career.
But that success hasn’t quite carried over. After walking in 11 of 140 plate appearances in 2020, Saturday’s free pass gave him 12 in 279 trips to the plate this year. It didn’t help that he started the year slowly, batting below .200 in April.
Even if the walks haven’t come until now, he’s begun to turn it around. He slashed .256/.283/.465 in May before taking off in June. He’s batting .341/.385/.624 this month, which has featured his first career three-homer game.
The recent walks indicate a change in approach, but it’s not one to be expected. Entering Saturday, Mountcastle is still chasing out of the strike zone at the same rate, according to FanGraphs, at 44.4% in June compared with 43.9% through the first two months. Over the past two weeks, which include all five of his walks in June, his chase rate is 40.7%. But he’s been much more aggressive with the pitches he’s gotten in the zone, swinging at them over 10% more often. His 86.4% rate of swinging at pitches in the strike zone this month is the highest of any qualified batter, per FanGraphs.
While this is seemingly counter-intuitive to increasing one’s walk rate, it also fits an aspect of what the Astros do and what the Orioles are training their minor leaguers to do: focus on the pitches they can do the most damage on.
None of Mountcastle’s 12 home runs have come on pitches on the outer third of the plate, according to MLB’s Statcast data. Each month, the percentage of pitches he’s seen on the outside portion of the strike zone have decreased, while he’s seeing more pitches in the areas he’s been more successful with. The spurt of walks is an added bonus.
“I just see him slowly improving,” Hyde said. “Just a much better strike zone management. And Ryan went through a rough patch early this season. Very, very normal for a Year 2 player, a young player for the league to expose him at times and continue to pitch to weaknesses, and Ryan’s done an amazing job of understanding, trying to make adjustments; it’s not going to be an overnight fix, it’s gonna be hard, and he is working hard at it of understanding the strike zone.
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“Because when he swings at strikes, he swings the pitches he can drive, good things do happen.”