Mountcastle surge would help ease Orioles’ short-term pains

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Brandon Hyde expressed more relief than joy after the Orioles snapped their 14-game losing streak earlier this week and won their first series in a month and first home series of the entire season.

You can certainly understand with Baltimore going 4-21 since John Means tossed his no-hitter in Seattle, but the way the manager described Ryan Mountcastle’s home run in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s 6-3 win over Minnesota resonated on a different level.

“Mountcastle’s homer was enormous,” Hyde said. “That’s really the hit that we haven’t been getting, honestly, is kind of that breakthrough homer to kind of get into their bullpen and not have a couple of their high-leverage guys pitch against us every night.”

Sure, the three-run blast to center increased a tight two-run advantage to 6-1 and helped the Orioles win their second straight game, but it coming from one of the players on the roster with the best chance to be around for the long haul meant a little more.

If your expectations were properly grounded entering 2021, the Orioles entering Friday with the worst record in the majors isn’t as frustrating as the individual struggles and hardships of those viewed as having the best chance to stick for a more competitive future. The quartet of Means, Trey Mancini, Cedric Mullins, and Paul Fry has been excellent, of course, but all but Mullins are 28 or older and will be the subject of trade rumors between now and the end of July.  

Meanwhile, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, and Hunter Harvey have continued to be plagued by injuries, Tanner Scott is again struggling to throw strikes, and young starters Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann, and Keegan Akin have ping-ponged between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk with underwhelming results at best. But Mountcastle has been the biggest disappointment with a .238 batting average and .665 on-base plus slugging percentage after an impressive 2020 debut and his standing as a consensus top 100 prospect in baseball entering the season.   

To be fair, the 24-year-old was all but guaranteed to experience some statistical regression from his .333/.386/.492 slash line that was buoyed by a .398 batting average on balls in play over his 140 plate appearances last season. However, Mountcastle entered Friday with a 31.6-percent strikeout rate and a 3.6-percent walk rate, both among the bottom 10 qualified players in the majors and markedly worse than last year’s rates of 21.4 percent and 7.9 percent. Statcast ranks his average exit velocity in the 30th percentile and puts his expected batting average at .223, reinforcing that he hasn’t been unlucky with a .317 batting average on balls in play this season.

Watching Mountcastle’s susceptibility to sliders low and away and other off-speed stuff has reminded some of Adam Jones’ weaknesses at the plate, but Jones played a premium position and provided defensive value to help offset those plate discipline concerns. Taking into account his defensive limitations, Mountcastle has played below replacement level with a minus-0.8 wins above replacement this season, according to Baseball Reference. Whether improving enough defensively to play a dependable left field, settling in at first base, or becoming a permanent designated hitter, Mountcastle will need to hit and hit a lot while improving his plate discipline to be a long-term answer in Baltimore.   

The 2015 first-round pick has quietly been better over his last 80 plate appearances with 10 extra-base hits and an .878 OPS despite 26 strikeouts and just two walks over that time. A bruised left hand from a hit by pitch was a temporary setback last week, but Mountcastle homering twice in the Twins series — both to center field — was a positive sign that he is healthy and heating up.

It’s not that the Orioles need to win a certain number of games in 2021 to prove they’re on the right track with the rebuilding process as much as you’d like to see more positives from the current crop of youngsters in the majors. Mountcastle alone isn’t reversing Baltimore’s current last-place fortunes, but general manager Mike Elias finding more answers now leaves less work in the future when the organization’s best prospects currently at the Double-A level and below begin to arrive.  

Each individual success from a young player allows fans to daydream about the finish line of this miserable rebuild being a little closer while the individual struggles and setbacks make it feel as though the losing will continue forever. That’s why the Orioles hope Wednesday’s clutch long ball will be “enormous” for Mountcastle in climbing out of that early-season hole and looking more like the hitter we saw last season.