Wind: 1.99 m/h
The oft-used phrase “sophomore slump” seems to apply to a lot of professional athletes these days, which makes sense: the opposition has had an entire offseason to adjust after a rookie season, so teams coming into matchups against a player who were blind before are now armed with enough info to tear apart your gameplan.
So when Ryan Mountcastle started off slow this season, I figured it was because teams were attacking him differently. He would need time to reformulate his approach to at-bats. Maybe a couple weeks.
But that hasn’t been the case so far. Mountcastle is slumping pretty hard — he’s slashing .167/.208/.264 through 20 games and has just one home run thus far. Mountcastle is about to enter May as one of the least productive hitters in baseball. Here’s Mountcastle’s Statcast profile (right) to make it clear.
What’s changed? Why is Mountcastle struggling so much this season? Let’s attack that problem from a couple different angles.
Pitchers Aren’t Attacking Mountcastle Much Differently
Mountcastle saw fastballs 52.7 percent of the time in 2020 and he mashed, hitting .356 and slugging .492 against those pitches. Mountcastle saw breaking balls 35.4 percent of the time in 2020 and still found success, hitting .327 and slugging .442.
In terms of pitches seen, Mountcastle is seeing slightly more breaking balls and slightly fewer fastballs than last season. His fastball percentage has dipped to 49.1 and his breaking ball percentage has climbed from 35.4 to 39.4.
Against those two types of pitches, Mountcastle’s numbers have fallen precipitously. Against fastballs, Mountcastle’s batting average has dropped from .356 to .189 and his slugging has dropped from .492 to .324. When he sees breaking pitches, Mountcastle’s average is down from .327 to .172 and his slugging percentage is down from .442 to .276.
Opposing pitchers’ plan of attack hasn’t caused Mountcastle’s cold start at the dish this season. So what’s causing it?
Getting Underneath The Baseball
Mountcastle is squaring up the ball — his sweet spot percentage has climbed five percentage points and his six barrels through 2021 is just one short of his 2020 number, despite seeing 231 fewer pitches.
What has changed is that Mountcastle is putting the ball in the air too often.
In 2020, Mountcastle’s average launch angle was 10.8 degrees. That average is up to 18.5 degrees this season. Just 21.4 percent of Mountcastle’s balls in play were flyballs in 2020, but that percentage is up to 41.2 percent this season. Mountcastle’s also seen increases in his weak contact percentage and his under percentage.
Old Habits Die Hard
One of the biggest knocks on Mountcastle as a minor leaguer was his strikeout-to-walk ratio. Mountcastle was very aggressive at the plate, aggressive to the point where his walk rate at Triple-A Norfolk was a paltry 4.3 percent.
Mountcastle raised that to 7.9 percent in his limited number of games in 2020, but his walk rate through 2021 is back down to 4.9 percent. Oh, and his strikeout rate is up nine points from last season.
Oddly enough, Mountcastle is chasing pitches outside the zone at a slightly lower clip than 2020 (38.1 percent to 40.1 percent), but he’s making far less contact on those pitches. Mountcastle’s contact rate on pitches outside the zone has fallen more than 16 percentage points to 41.1 percent.
To put it in perspective, Mountcastle ranks in the eighth percentile in whiff percentage on swings and ranks in the fourth percentile in chase rate. Oh, and he’s in the 20th percentile in walk rate.
What’s The Prescription?
Mountcastle is going to need a lot more than more cowbell to get out of this slump that he’s in. Hitting coach Don Long has his work cut out for him.
Mountcastle has to take more pitches. He got away with a lot of contact on pitches outside the zone in 2020, a trend that is clearly not repeating itself in 2021. He’s forcing the issue at the plate right now, a common mistake for hitters of all ages who are scuffling at the plate. Even if it forces him to lose some power for now, the Orioles need to focus on Mountcastle avoiding the strikeout and just trying to get on base.
The Orioles need Mountcastle to get it going. Forget the issues defensively — this can be addressed another time. Mountcastle is going to make his money as a hitter and right now, he’s doing more harm than good at the plate.
The Orioles need him to turn it around.