Ryan Mountcastle’s search for a more fortunate future has, at times, caused him to think about his past.
“Maybe I should have helped the old lady cross the street,” he’ll think. “Maybe I should have waited that awkward amount of time to hold the door open for that person that was sort of far away.”
But despite his best efforts to retroactively redirect his karma, the Orioles’ first baseman can’t shed his status as one baseball’s unluckiest hitters. Sometimes, he’ll hit a hard liner — right at an opposing defender. Drives the other way? Nope, caught with a leap at the wall, even if the robbing outfielder suffers a sprained shoulder in the process. Even balls hit soft and shallow simply present chances for diving catches.
“I’m just an unlucky guy, I guess,” Mountcastle said. “How I was made.”
In 2021, Mountcastle set a franchise record for home runs by a rookie. In 2022, he became one of baseball’s most unfortunate sluggers; no qualified hitter’s actual slugging percentage was further below his expected figure based on quality of contact, according to Baseball Savant. His .509 expected slugging percentage, derived from the past outcomes of balls in play with similar exit velocities and launch angles, was the 10th highest in baseball, while his true mark of .423 ranked 100th. The deficit of .086 was 19 points higher than the second-largest gap; the difference between second and 19th was 18 points.
The trend has continued this season. Entering Saturday, Mountcastle had the third-largest deficit at 175 points, expected to be slugging .613 — 11th among qualified hitters — but actually slugging .438. He had the seventh-biggest drop in expected batting average, falling from .304 to .229.
“It’s tough,” Mountcastle said. “Look up at scoreboard, and it’s like, ‘I feel good,’ and and it says .220 up there. It’s unbelievable. It’s the best first month I feel like I’ve ever had. Just doesn’t really look that good, I guess, on the scoreboard.”
Asked how he keeps himself sane amid the misfortune, Mountcastle laughed and said, “I don’t.” Although he’s generally avoided expressing frustration on the field beyond an occasional grimace or look of disbelief, he acknowledged his batted-ball outcomes have worn on him. He’s comforted by how well the Orioles have played despite what he’s dealt with and knows there are more than 130 games left this season for his luck to “even out,” but he’s also aware he’s waited more than a year for that to happen.
“I think I’ve exhausted every possible superstition,” Mountcastle said. “Anything you can probably think of. From outfits to shoes, socks to pregame meals. Anything.”
None, Mountcastle said, have offered even temporary fortune. He said doesn’t feel a need to change his approach, though perhaps part of his bad luck stems from his capability of driving the ball to the big part of the field. Entering Saturday, 75% of his contact has gone up the middle or the other way, more than 13% above the average right-handed hitter this year. As FanGraphs recently noted regarding Mountcastle, batters are more successful hitting fly balls to their pull side rather than to the opposite field, and Mountcastle does the former at a rate well below league average.
He’s liable to chase and unlikely to draw a walk, though he’s striking out at a career-low rate and making contact at a higher clip than he ever has. The quality of that contact suggests he does enough to make up for any weaknesses. The results say otherwise.
“He’s got a terrible aim when he hits the ball,” manager Brandon Hyde joked. “That’s something that we need to work on in the cage.”
Hyde’s quip came two days after Tigers right fielder Kerry Carpenter robbed Mountcastle of extra bases with a leaping catch despite suffering a sprained right shoulder on the play; balls in play such as that are hits 78% of the time, according to Baseball Savant. Hyde also suggested Mountcastle “hit the ball a little softer in front” of fielders, only for him to try in the third inning of Saturday’s first game and have right fielder Matt Vierling dive forward to deny him.
Mountcastle said each time another potential hit is lost to a defensive highlight or a well-positioned fielder, he returns to the dugout to teammates and coaches shaking their heads.
“They just sort of laugh every time it happens now,” he said. “So they’re laughing at me a lot.”
Mountcastle figures, though, there might be one untapped avenue for him to change his luck. He’s tried being superstitious. He’s tried being as nice as he can be.
“Maybe, I’ll just start being [a jerk],” Mountcastle said. “Maybe that’ll help.”