After Birdland was initially left disappointed on this front through the first few weeks of the truncated 2020 season, Ryan Mountcastle was finally called up from the alternate site in Bowie to make his much-anticipated MLB debut. The 2015 first-round pick did not disappoint, hitting .333/.386/.492 over 140 plate appearances in 35 games, with five home runs, five doubles, and 23 driven in, good for a 140 OPS+.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of Mountcastle’s debut three dozen games was that his walk and strikeout percentages, both concerns during his time rising through the minor leagues, surprisingly improved once he reached the MLB level. He walked in 7.9% of his plate appearances in 2020, compared to just 4.3% last year in AAA Norfolk, and 6.1% in 2018 in Bowie. Likewise, he struck out in 21.4% of his trips to the dish in 2020, an improvement over his 23.5 K% in AAA Norfolk. Of course, we need to include the usual “small sample size” caveat here, as it was only 35 games, but Mountcastle never looked overwhelmed facing MLB pitching for the first time.
Now, is it sustainable? For it to be so, Ryan may need to become just a bit less swing-happy. According to data at FanGraphs, he swung at 58.8% of all pitches he saw, including 42% of pitches outside the strike zone, and 83.1% of pitches inside the zone. To compare to just one other highly-touted Baltimore prospect, Manny Machado swung at 47.8% of pitches during his 51-game 2012 season, including 32.3% of pitches outside the zone and 66.2% of pitches inside it. Even free-swinging Adam Jones swung at just 56% of all pitches he saw and 40.1% of pitches outside the zone in his career (though he eclipsed Mountcastle’s 42% twice, in 2015 and 2016. Still, it’s clear that Mountcastle will continue to see fewer and fewer strikes as long as he keeps hacking so indiscriminately. Something to work on this offseason.
The good news is that, to use an old Buck-ism, Ryan’s “contact-to-damage” ratio was pretty darn good. Per Statcast data, Mountcastle led the Orioles in hard-hit percentage at 42.7%. That was good for 80th in MLB, ahead of such names as George Springer (42.5%), Carlos Correa (41.8%), J.D Martinez (41.6%), and Cody Bellinger (41.5%).
In the field, Mountcastle was…well, fine. He played left field for each of his first 20 starts, before playing first base on September 15. He then played first in nine of the last 10 games (though he also played in left for a bit in two of those). In total, he lined up in left for 192.1 innings, and at first for 75. He made only one error (at first), and had -3 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at first, and -1 in left. His Ultimate Zone Rating/150 innings (UZR/150) was 2.4 for left, and -0.8 at first. So basically, he was pretty much an average fielder at both positions, though a bit better in the outfield.
Overall, it was a very successful debut mini-season for Mountcastle. If he can work on reining in his free-swinging ways just a bit this winter, he should be able to keep it going in 2021, and Birdland can continue to count on him as being a key cog in the rebuild.