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Orioles’ Trey Mancini enduring mixed start to comeback season: ‘He’s just trying so hard’

Trey Mancini’s return to the Orioles was always going to be less about the stats he put up in his first season back after beating colon cancer, and more about the fact he was back in the lineup on a daily basis at all.

But since he’s checked the box of making it back to the majors, Mancini’s body language has often made no secret of the frustration he’s felt in getting off to a slow start. After he struck out four times in Friday’s victory, Mancini batted fifth Saturday, the first time manager Brandon Hyde has put him lower than fourth in a lineup.

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He finished Saturday by going 2-for-5, delivering a go-ahead double in the eighth inning of a 6-1 victory.

“Every time when I see Trey go to the batter’s box, I always think something good is going to happen,” third baseman Maikel Franco said. “He’s a great hitter. I always think he’s going to do a good thing for us.”

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Before the game, Hyde said the drop in the lineup was in hopes of taking some pressure off Mancini. He had tried earlier this week to give Mancini a day off, keeping him out of the lineup Wednesday before rain prompted a doubleheader Thursday.

“Just trying to help Trey out,” Hyde said. “He’s just putting so much pressure on himself and he’s just trying so hard. I just want him to relax as much as possible, knowing that the guy hasn’t played in a year. It’s not easy to play in the big leagues anyways. I think he thinks that he’s going to pick up where he left off, and we have full confidence that he’s going to be the player that he is. It just might take a little bit of time.”

Mancini earned All-Star consideration and was named Most Valuable Oriole in 2019, as he hit 35 home runs, drove in 97 runs and posted an OPS of .899. Even after Saturday’s two-hit performance, he’s batting .172/.234/.379, an OPS of .614, in 2021.

But there are signs of bright spots in Mancini’s play. He’s homered three times, and his average exit velocity entering Saturday was only one mph slower than his 2019 mark, according to MLB’s Statcast data.

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As a result, some elements of his slow start appear to be bad luck. His batting average on balls in play was .152 through Friday, while the league average was .287. Based on Statcast’s expected batting metrics, which focus on quality of contact rather than the actual results, Mancini’s expected average is .236, with an expected slugging percentage of .491.

But for the quality of contact he’s making, the quantity has come at a much lower rate than it has in the past. Although Mancini is swinging about as often as he did in 2019, he’s missing about 10% more than he did two years ago, while swinging through fastballs almost twice as often as he did in 2019. As a result, he’s stuck out 19 times while playing in all of Baltimore’s first 15 games.

After Mancini took a great amount of pride in cutting his ground ball rate from 2018 to 2019, that figure has spiked back up so far this year, while his line-drive rate has plummeted. His three home runs went the other way — typically a sign to Hyde that Mancini is locked in — but he’s pulling the ball more than half the time, a 20% jump from 2019, according to Statcast. His sixth-inning single into right field was his first opposite-field hit this year besides the home runs.

“He hasn’t seen major league pitching in over a year, so it’s not easy to do,” Hyde said. “I just want him to relax and have at-bats and not try to carry us in any way or think he’s got to be a main contributor. I just want him to be himself and get back into the swing of things.”

Mancini has balanced the offensive side of his comeback while also adjusting to what is, in some senses, a new defensive position. Although he was a first baseman coming up through the minor leagues, he hadn’t yet played there consistently in the majors. Mancini has been rated positively for his defense this year, making a diving stop for an out in the ninth inning of Friday’s victory.

“For me, he’s been solid,” Hyde said. “It’s the same thing, hasn’t played in a year. Just the speed of the game, it’s not easy to pick off where you left off when you have this much of a layoff. On top of that, he didn’t play a whole lot of first base in his big league career the past three or four years, so he’s still learning the position, also.

“He’s going to continue to improve, and we’ve just got to be a little bit patient.”

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