Recovering from vertigo left Ryan Mountcastle plenty of time to think. And when your absence coincides with another slugger in Ryan O’Hearn performing well in your stead, it’s hard to think about much else.
So, Mountcastle kept it simple.
“I didn’t really know what was going to happen when I got back,” he said. “Just sitting there, I thought, ‘At the end of the day, I’ve got to be healthy and when I’m ready, I know I’m confident in my abilities and can go out there and help the team.’ Now, it seems like I’m helping out and playing well, so just trying to stay confident. I know I’m a good player, and I have the ability to go out there and produce.”
A month on from his return, that’s proven right. Even before hitting the longest home run by an Orioles hitter (474 feet) since Statcast started measuring in 2016, Mountcastle was one of the game’s top hitters since his return on July 9. He had a 1.094 OPS and 201 wRC+, which ranked ninth and seventh among all MLB hitters in that span, entering Tuesday’s game.
Tuesday’s home run was just his third in that span, but he’s been hitting the ball hard throughout, as evidenced by his seven doubles. His 94.2 mph average exit velocity was fourth-highest of any player with at least 50 plate appearances since his activation on July 9; by comparison, his average exit velocity was 91.7 mph before he went on the injured list.
Part of that success stems from what was, from the outside, a pretty concerning rehab spell at Triple-A Norfolk. Mountcastle didn’t have a hit in his first 17 plate appearances over four games, though he walked three times. One of the most aggressive swingers in the game, he focused on taking better at-bats and honing his process in Norfolk in an effort to see the ball better.
The Orioles’ hitting philosophy is simple — the most damage is done over the heart of the plate, and the less often a player swings at pitches outside the zone, the better the chances they’ll get pitches they can drive over the middle.
Mountcastle swung at 41.4% of pitches he saw outside the strike zone before going on the injured list, according to Statcast data from BaseballSavant.com, then lowered his chase rate to 37.4% in Norfolk and has been down to 35.9% since his injury. When separating out to pitches over the heart of the plate and all those that aren’t in that space, the difference is equally stark. He swung at 50.7% of pitches outside the heart of the plate before going on the injured list, and 41.2% since his return.
That’s helped him raise his walk rate significantly — he walked 4.2% of the time before going on the IL, and entered Tuesday with a 9.9% walk rate since his return. His strikeout rate dropped from 24.5% to 19.9%.
The difference has come with what he’s doing inside the zone, though. Mountcastle wasn’t really being rewarded for what happened when he swung at pitches over the heart of the plate before the injury; he had a .589 slugging percentage on such pitches, with a .322 weighted on-base average against expected stats that were far better (.867 and .499, respectively). From his return through Sunday’s game, he had an .897 slugging percentage on balls over the plate, against a .750 expected slugging percentage, with a .575 wOBA against a .501 xwOBA.
Mountcastle trained his eye the same way everyone else on the Orioles’ farm and major league roster does — with a focus on swinging only at pitches that hit the medicine ball placed atop a bucket behind home plate during batting practice, helping represent the pitches he can best drive.
“Sometimes, I have the ability to hit some pitches that maybe aren’t the best ones to hit and I’ll hit those sometimes and think I can hit it all the time, and that’s the frustrating part of the game,” Mountcastle said. “But it is what it is. I’m just trying to control the zone and see the ball well, and just be on time to hit something in my part of the zone.”
The results have made Mountcastle, who was eased back into major league action as the small part of a left-right platoon with O’Hearn, a fixture in the heart of the Orioles’ lineup yet again. Mountcastle had a 1.183 OPS in August 2021, but absent that, this is his best stretch in the majors.
At age 26, he’s nearing the three-year anniversary of his major league debut, which on this young Orioles team makes him a veteran of sorts. And having spent a month of this season wondering what his future would hold, Mountcastle’s maturity showed when discussing how he regarded this stretch.
“Sometimes, in your own head, you’re not cocky or anything but you feel like you get a little too high and then the game will humble you quick,” he said. “I think just being more mature and just mentally, it’s a new day every single day. There’s going to be new challenges every day. That’s just sort of what I learned these past couple months, taking it day by day and whatever happens, happens. I’m just having fun.”