Despite the overall strangeness of the 2020 MLB season, it’s been a pretty good year for prospects. We’ve seen pitching prospects like Sixto Sanchez, Dane Dunning, Brady Singer, Triston McKenzie and Ian Anderson all have success, while hitters like Kyle Lewis, Alec Bohm, Jake Cronenworth, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and of course Luis Robert have succeeded as well.
We’ve also seen plenty of prospects who weren’t able to put it all together just yet, like Jo Adell, Dylan Carlson, Carter Kieboom, Casey Mize, Nate Pearson, and Spencer Howard, and while there can be some temptation to downgrade guys who struggled out of the gate, it’s foolish to put too much stock into really good or really bad big league performances this year, with such a small sample size to work with.
That doesn’t mean there are not guys who have risen or lowered their stock, it just means evaluating the results without looking for any tangible changes is foolish. In the case of today’s topic, Orioles 1B/LF Ryan Mountcastle, his early career success at the big league level is somewhat sample size related, but a closer look under the hood shows some very noticeable changes he made to his game—which could impact his value in dynasty leagues.
Who is Ryan Mountcastle?
The Orioles initially drafted Ryan Mountcastle No. 26 overall in the 2015 MLB draft out of Hagerty High School in Florida, signing him away from a commitment to Central Florida. He joined Baltimore as a highly-regarded shortstop prospect, although scouts at the time admitted his MLB future likely would take place at either third base or an outfield corner.
That ended up being the case, as Mountcastle was given every opportunity to stick at shortstop in 2015 and all of 2016, but began the transition to third base in 2017 at Double-A Bowie. He was arguably just as bad with the glove at third as he was at shortstop, which resulted in him playing almost exclusively first base and left field in 2019, and he is now no longer considered an option at the hot corner.
While Mountcastle’s deficiencies defensively will be a factor in his future value, fantasy and otherwise, one area he has yet to struggle is with the stick.
Mountcastle never posted a batting average below .281 or an OPS below .745 at any full season stop in the minor leagues. While his power wasn’t always on the same level as the output he produced in AAA in 2019—thanks in part to the juiced ball—he always displayed excellent, I mean excellent, bat-to-ball skills along with the frame of a future home run slugger.
Take 2018 for example. Mountcastle hit 18 home runs in 538 plate appearances across A+ and AA. Those are good, but not great, power numbers for a guy who hit .287, but nothing to write home about if you’re looking for a true slugger. However, Mountcastle also mashed 48(!) doubles that season, a pretty clear sign that a slight adjustment (or a new baseball) could unlock some serious over-the-fence power.
That’s what we saw from him in his explosive 2019 season. Playing for the Norfolk Tides in the AAA International League, Mountcastle went to work, blasting 25 home runs with 83 RBI and an excellent .312/.344/.527 slash line, along with a .367 wOBA, a 117 wRC+, and 35 doubles, just for good measure.
While Mountcastle’s defense was used as an excuse to keep him down late in 2019 and to begin the 2020 campaign (which likely had more to do with service time manipulation) he did have one other glaring flaw: his plate discipline.
While his bat-to-ball skills kept his strikeout numbers from ever becoming too egregious (he consistently posted a strikeout rate between 18-24 percent—above average for a slugging corner infielder/outfielder)—his complete inability to take a walk was rather jarring, and the turnaround in that area is perhaps the most notable thing about his profile over his first 26 MLB games.
Over the (Mount)Castle on the Hill
As of this writing, Mountcastle’s MLB numbers are eye-popping.
In 26 games, and just over 100 plate appearances, Mountcastle is slashing .348/.406/.573 with five home runs, 21 RBI, and a 161 wRC+. That .406 OBP is what I want to focus on first, as it can be attributed primarily to his 8.9% walk rate—which is far higher than any walk rate he posted in the minor leagues.
If there was an offensive knock on Mountcastle after his excellent 2019 season in Norfolk, it was his impatience at the plate. Even after blasting 25 home runs and hitting .311, he only posted a .334 OBP thanks to his abhorrent 4.3% walk rate. That wasn’t even the worst mark of his career, as he walked just 17 times in 538 plate appearances during the 2017 season, good for a 3.1% rate.
So—what changed? Well, anecdotally at least, Mountcastle made a concentrated effort to work on his pitch recognition while at the team’s alternate training site—even using Mike Trout’s plate discipline as a model for his own improvements in that area.
“Having that objective data helps to be able to show him specifically where he’s doing well and where he’s not, just for his thought process to try and clean up a little more, because he understands the concept,” said Anthony Villa, one of the hitting coaches at Baltimore’s site. “He’s giving away at-bats, in a sense, if he’s chasing everything. But on the flip side, we’re not trying to fence in a wild horse. We want Ryan to continue to be aggressive. His No. 1 carrying tool is his damage ability, and we certainly don’t want to hinder that.”
So the Orioles used ‘data’ to tell Mountcastle to only swing at good pitches while maintaining his aggressiveness. That doesn’t exactly strike me as a recipe for a drastic change to his profile—and indeed a closer look under the hood shows that his profile hasn’t exactly changed all that much, even with the incredibly improved big league walk rate.
|Zone%||Zone Swing%||Zone Contact%||Chase%||Chase Contact%||First Pitch Swing%||Swing%||Whiff%|
Mountcastle is outrageously aggressive, swinging at pitches in the strike zone 15% more often than the average big league hitter. He’s also swinging at the first pitch nearly 50% of the time, which helps explain his relatively low strikeout rate: you can’t strike out if you put the ball in play early.
Mountcastle is also chasing pitches out of the zone 10% more than your average hitter, and is whiffing at a higher rate as well. Those numbers aren’t overly concerning—we knew he was an aggressive hitter—as long as the results when he does make contact are satisfactory, which they are.
Well…..sorta. Mountcastle’s results up to this point have been excellent, obviously, but he has been buoyed by a .413 BABIP and some of his statcast measurements don’t quite hold up.
Mountcastle’s current exit velocity is just 86.6 miles per hour, not even reaching the league average of 88.2. He does have six barrels in 68 batted ball instances, good for an 8.8% rate, but he also has a 5.9% weak contact rate—double the league average—as well as a high rate of getting underneath the ball, and a pitiful 1.5% rate of solid contact.
What does this all mean? Well, it could obviously be small sample size nonsense, as we can’t compare it to any previous data, but I’d be at least slightly concerned about a slugger who hasn’t shown much plate discipline and who is making a lot of weak contact and popping the ball up fairly regularly.
Still, the results have been there so far and the xStats (.282/.355/.490) aren’t bad by any means, so I wouldn’t be rushing to sell high or anything just yet.
I hinted at this a bit at the onset of the article, but unless I see dramatic changes, I don’t think I’m changing my overall value of most prospects based on small sample sizes in 2020. In Mountcastle’s case, while we are seeing a big uptick in his walk rate and outstanding overall numbers, a closer look shows that his plate discipline issues are still present, and his batted ball profile doesn’t quite line up with his performance so far.
However, my overall projections for Mountcastle coming into the season were that he could be a .290 hitter with 25 home runs annually, and I see no reason why that isn’t still easily attainable for the 23-year-old masher. In fact, I’m even more confident in his ability to reach those numbers, even if some of his performance this year is unlikely to be repeated.
For redraft leagues, Mountcastle is well worth picking up for the stretch run in nearly all formats. It looks like he still has SS eligibility on Yahoo! and 3B eligibility on ESPN, which makes him even more attractive for this season. He’s probably going to settle in as a very solid corner outfielder in fantasy, and while the early returns are promising—I still expect him to be a bit of a bog in OBP formats thanks to his aggressive nature at the dish.
In dynasty, I think it’s reasonable to consider trying to sell high if someone is willing to pay a premium for him based on his gaudy 2020 numbers, or if they think he’ll remain SS/3B eligible, but I wouldn’t be in any hurry to deal him either—what you’ll end up getting out of him long-term is still pretty valuable in most dynasty formats.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)