SARASOTA, Fla. - They are subtle changes and tweaks that are made. But they show the Orioles that a couple of their top young hitting prospects in Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle can make needed adjustments that will serve them well as they try to consistently hit major league pitching.
Hays posted a walk rate of just 4.3 percent in 2019 at Triple-A and 4.2 the season before at Double-A. But he’s learning to harness his aggressive swinging at key times to help produce more loud contact. He is learning, he’s told me, that when he gets ahead in the count he doesn’t need to swing at any strike. Just the strikes that find the middle and are very hittable.
He showed evidence of this recently in the 13-0 win over the Pirates on Thursday when he went 2-for-3 with a two-run double. He had an at-bat where he took a 2-0 pitch for a strike on the outside corner. Two pitches later he smoked a 3-1 pitch that found the middle of the plate.
Manager Brandon Hyde said that showed growth by a young hitter.
“That is something we’ve talked a lot about with him,” said Hyde. “I don’t want to take his aggressiveness away. The reason he’s such an exciting player is because he’s aggressive. Aggressive defensively, aggressive on the bases. I want him to be aggressive in the strike zone. I think that AB right there is a sign of maturity. Someone that is starting to really learn his strike zone, and what he can and can’t handle.
“Now I just think he’ll improve on that. I thought he did that in September last year, too. His walk total hasn’t been great in the minor leagues, but he took some really good at-bats in the big leagues where he took some tough sliders away. Zoned in a little bit and hopefully he can build off it.”
Like Hays, Mountcastle is an aggressive hitter. He’s up there looking to hit, not walk. But also like Hays, he will have to learn to take a 2-0 pitch that he can’t drive and wait for a better one when he’s in a similar spot.
“They’re both just really aggressive hitters,” said Hyde. “You want to believe the more at-bats they get, the more they see major league pitching, they’ll understand their strike zone better. Understand what they can and can’t handle.”
Mountcastle, the 2019 Orioles Minor League Player of the Year and International League MVP, has made some of his own adjustments that could pay off in the future.
Last year, on his own essentially, he changed his batting stance and shortened his swing a bit when he faced any two-strike count. Putting the ball in play beats any strikeout and Mountcastle worked hard on his two-strike approach.
He told me he would even choke up at times as he widened his stance for more of a toe tap then a stride with two strikes.
Again, here is a young player making a smart adjustment. Major league pitchers make a living carving up young hitters that chase pitches with a two-strike count.
“I tried to put the ball in play and put the ball in play hard,” said Mountcastle. “I’m not trying to just slap a ground ball to the infield. Trying to still do some damage but at the same time have some good barrel control. I (first) did it some the previous year (2018) and then worked on it in the offseason. Felt comfortable and started doing it this past year.”
Mountcastle’s strikeout rate actually went up from 2018 (18.5) at Double-A to 2019 (23.5). But he was facing more advanced pitchers with Triple-A Norfolk and his two-strike approach is a work in progress. But he liked this approach and pledges to continue to work at it with his widened stance.
“Yeah, because back in high school I had a really wide stance like that, and my first year or two of pro ball I did. Then I started to stand up a little more. With two strikes I just now feel a bit more comfortable putting the ball in play this way.”
Mountcastle went 3-for-3 Thursday against Pittsburgh with two doubles and a homer. The O’s young hitters showed their stuff that day. In the third and fourth innings, Hays and Mountcastle each batted twice. They went a combined 4-for-4 with four doubles and four RBIs.
As O’s fans dream on a potent future lineup featuring Hays and Mountcastle, they can feel good about this duo that is going beyond what they show in raw talent to try and get better.