The 2019 Major League Baseball season has reached its conclusion and it’s time to look forward to the offseason and 2020. But looking back on this past season, there were a number of Orioles who produced impressive campaigns: John Means, Jonathan Villar, Hanser Alberto, Renato Núñez and Trey Mancini.
Let’s talk about the last name on the list.
We’ve seen quite a crazy start to the career of the Orioles’ first baseman/outfielder. Mancini wasn’t known as a top prospect of any sorts while coming up through Batimore’s farm system. He broke onto the scene in Sept. 2016 with three home runs in five games, cementing the “Boom Boom” call for many longballs to come.
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In his first full season at the big-league level in 2017, Mancini batted .293/.338/.488 with 24 home runs, 116 wRC+, .349 wOBA and 1.6 WAR (per FanGraphs). He finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting behind the Yankees’ Aaron Judge (first) and Red Sox’s Andrew Benintendi (second).
Mancini’s first full season sparked a lot of hope from O’s fans of what was to come.
In 2018, Mancini matched his previous total of 24 home runs. However, he slashed just .242/.299/.416 with 91 wRC+, .308 wOBA and -0.3 fWAR. His first half was abysmal, hitting .216/.292/.363 with 78 wRC+ and .289 wOBA. He had a much better second half of the season though, slashing .276/.307/.484 with 109 wRC+ and .334 wOBA. That’s a drastic improvement, but his second-half numbers still weren’t close to as good as his results from his rookie campaign in 2017.
This left many O’s fans wondering what to expect from Mancini in 2019, his age-27 season and third year in the majors.
What did he end up doing? He put up the best numbers of his career and was named Most Valuable Oriole. Mancini batted .291/.364/.535 with 35 homers, 132 wRC+, .373 wOBA and 3.5 fWAR in 2019.
Which season do we believe is the true Mancini?
Well, before we determine that, let’s take a look at what he has done differently this season from his previous years.
First off, he used the entire field more frequently in 2019 than he ever has before. In general, we saw Mancini driving the ball up the middle quite often this year, reluctant to sell out and fly open to attempt to pull off-speed pitches on the outside part of the plate.
As you can see in the table above, these aren’t drastic differences, but they are worth mentioning. In Mancini’s best season, he posted the lowest percentage of batted balls pulled to left field, as well as his highest percentage of batted balls hit up the middle. If you sell yourself out to pull the ball often, pitchers can counter that and find ways to get you out, which is exactly what happened in 2018.
However, in 2019, the season that Mancini put up his highest homer total, he hit the fewest of them to left field, his pull side.
From 2016-2018, 43.1 percent of Mancini’s home runs were pulled. In 2019? That frequency dropped to 28.6 percent.
Mancini showed his desire to stay in the middle of the field, whether it be for base knocks or hitting the longball. If you don’t show your plan to pull the ball often and early, it makes it much harder for pitchers to know what to do to get you out.
Speaking of longballs, Mancini reached a career-high season total in them this season, mashing 35 of them this year, compared to his former-highest total of 24. What happened to spark this power stroke?
If your initial thought is the fact that the baseballs in 2019 were juiced, I won’t argue with you there. There have been many balls hit this year, including a couple from Mancini, that probably had no business leaving the ballpark. Some even looked like they may have been bloopers off the bat. But I think there’s more to his homer spike than just the change in baseballs.
Heading into this season, Mancini had been hitting quite a lot of balls on the ground. In 2019, he lifted the ball much more often.
In 2018, the worst season of his three-year career, Mancini produced his lowest line drive rate, lowest fly ball rate and highest groundball rate. How did he change things this season? He posted a 3.3 percent increase in his line drive rate, a 5.4 percent increase in his fly ball rate and an 8.7 percent decrease in his groundball rate.
As Joe Trezza of MLB.com wrote last week, Mancini hasn’t bought into the launch angle era.
“Not trying to lift the ball, just getting pitches he can drive,” manager Brandon Hyde told Trezza.
However, I think it’s possible Mancini has begun to slowly adopt the launch-angle approach without even realizing it. His average launch angle in 2018 was 5.4 degrees, but in 2019 he gave it a slight boost to 7.8 degrees. This still isn’t a large launch angle, but there is some sort of change of which to take note.
Steve Melewski of MASNsports.com wrote that the club has provided Mancini with information to take his offensive output to an even higher level going forward, possibly to even reach 40 longballs.
“It’s something we’ve talked about the last month or two with him,” Hyde told Melewski. “Good things happen when he hits the ball in the air. I just think it’s an approach thing more than anything. … Especially early (in the year) for me the two-seamer or the left-handed cutter, he would swing at and hit ground balls to short and third. Now you are starting to see him elevate the baseball more and lay off those pitches he can’t really drive and wait for something he can stay behind and hit the ball in the air.”
If the Orioles are providing even more information to Mancini, we could see another uptick in home runs and launch angle in 2020.
But what was Hyde talking about saying Mancini is laying off pitchers’ pitches?
Oh yeah, that brings me to my final point.
In 2019, Mancini posted his highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate. He has shown a greater discipline against sliders and curveballs in a year that he saw the most of those pitches.
In 2019, Mancini saw fewer fastballs and more breaking balls, yet his swing rate went down on breaking balls but up on fastballs. He’s made an adjustment at the plate to stop chasing the sliders and curveballs breaking away from him, those that he can’t barrel up, to put himself in a better position to get a fastball in his zone.
In spring training in 2018, Mancini said to the MASN booth that he had been working on mechanical adjustments to keep his head still, noting that he formerly had a lot of head movement in years’ past that may have hurt his production. He said he had “wasted movement” in his approach so he wanted to focus on changing that. Well, we see how his 2018 season went. Not good.
However, in spring training prior to this season, Mancini told the MASN booth that his new focus was strictly on seeing the baseball, and that worrying about his mechanics in the box actually made things worse for him. Could this have had an impact on his breakout 2019 campaign? Maybe, maybe not. But there’s something to be said about something we can’t always see with our eyes and critique, and that’s a player’s mental approach.
Over his three-year career, we’ve seen three completely different versions of Mancini. If the new information provided to him was the reason for his 2019 outbreak, this is something we could look forward to for years to come. Whether that’s in an Orioles uniform or not is a conversation for another day.
But if these differences in his approach, ball lifting and pitch selection didn’t mean a darn thing, then we don’t really know what to expect from Mancini heading into his age-28 season.
There are reasons, like I’ve provided above, that may give you enough to believe Mancini’s 2019 numbers are the ones we should trust. But with his inconsistencies from year to year, there’s also enough reason to have some doubt that he can repeat this production.
Therefore, I ask: Will the real Mancini please stand up?