Can a couple returning vets elevate their offense for the O's?

When it comes to how much a team may be improved from one year to the next we often look at what offseason additions they made. Did they get better there? We seldom look at improvements players already on the roster could make.

During a media session with reporters last Friday at the Warehouse, O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias discussed two important, and still young, players on his roster and their abilities to take a step forward in 2023. He was talking specifically about Ryan Mountcastle, whose .729 OPS last season was five percent over the American League average, and outfielder Austin Hays, whose .719 OPS was three percent above league average.

Both players got off to good starts that didn’t hold up in 2022. Mountcastle had an OPS of .786 in the first half and .659 in the second half. He hit just five homers total in July and August. Hays posted an OPS of .779 in the first half and .626 in the second half.

In Mountcastle’s case, his homer total dropped from 33 in 2021 – which was an Orioles rookie record – to 22 a season ago. His homer percentage dipped from 5.6 percent to 3.6.

But when it came to expected stats, a formula that uses a combination of exit velocity and launch angle, Mountcastle looked strong on the stat sheet.

His final actual slugging percentage for the year was .423, which ranked 38th in the American League among qualified hitters. But his expected slugging percentage of .509 would have tied AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez of Seattle for seventh-best in the actual final tally of league slugging leaders. That slugging percentage would have moved him ahead of the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Kyle Tucker, Anthony Rizzo, George Springer and Carlos Correa.

The -.086 differential between his actual slugging (.423) and xSLG (.509) for last year was the largest differential in the majors.

Elias seemed to note that in talking about the No. 36 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft. Elias also talked about his 2022 hopes for Hays too.

“Mountcastle and Hays are right in there,” he said. “They’re going to be in the middle of our lineup, two good quality right-handed hitters, which we need, because a lot of our other guys are left-handed. Mountcastle in particular, when we looked at it on paper, he had a very unlucky season. Little bit of that was the dimensions of the wall, but he blasted a lot of balls to center field, both here and elsewhere, that just didn’t get out.

“He’s still super young. I think we all have hopes for maybe a huge season from him. And to see Austin get through a full major league season healthy like that and have a solid season, I think the next step for him is having a better second half. I don’t see any reason why he won’t do that.”

Hays posted these OPS numbers by month, starting in April: .843, .798, 794, .566, .638, .656.

His quality of contact and rates of contact suffered over the course of the year. He ended the season in the bottom 11 percent, per Statcast, in chasing pitches and bottom 26 percent in barrels, defined as a ball hit at least 98 mph with a launch angle of 26 to 30 degrees. Such balls have a slugging percentage average of 1.500 since Statcast data began gathering such data in 2015.

Also here is a stat note about these players that shows how important the first pitch of the count can be: When batting in 2022 after the count was 0-1, Mountcastle’s OPS was .523. After the count was 1-0, his OPS was .942. Huge difference, which was less pronounced for Hays at .580 after 0-1 and .771 after 1-0.

More random stats on Mountcastle:

* He averaged a homer every 25.2 at-bats at home and 25.3 on the road.

* He did hit 22 Oriole Park homers in 2021 with one every 12.8 at-bats. 

* He had an .801 OPS in one-run games and .827 in extra-inning games.

* An aggressive hitter, he had an .880 OPS on an 0-0 count.

More random stats on Hays:

* From 2017-2021 his combined OPS was .761, producing a 104 OPS+. In 2022 his .719 OPS produced a 103 OPS+.

* His average exit velocity was 88.8 mph in 2021 and 87.7 last year.

* He had an .873 OPS versus the Yankees, .810 against Boston, .614 against Toronto and .601 versus Tampa Bay.

* He ranked 27th among all outfielders in arm strength, at 91.9 mph per throw.

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