From a very precious age, a baseball player typically faces those who are older than them. Against competitors bigger, stronger, and faster, there is consistently a need to prove themselves. Having a standout quality helps separate them and enables them to garner fear and respect from the elder peers.
At just eighteen years of age, Orlando native Ryan Mountcastle experiences these obstacles as the final first round pick by the Baltimore Orioles in the June draft playing the shortstop. A recent promotion to short-season Aberdeen adds another obstacle thrown into the fire of a pennant race.
The 2015 first year player draft featured a total of seven shortstops in the first round. Two of those were selected out of the state of Florida, including Brendan Rodgers, who grew up 20 minutes away from Mountcastle in Lake Mary, Florida, before being taken with the third overall pick by the Colorado Rockies. Just a short trip across the state, Mountcastle attended Hagerty High School, playing primarily at shortstop.
A relative unknown to many, Mountcastle emerged as a household after being named to the Under Armour All-America Game, a competition comprised of the finest High School players in the country. At the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, Mountcastle became a household name with a two hit performance for the National team, earning MVP honors.
“Ryan Mountcastle continued to hit in games against good competition,” executive vice president of baseball at Baseball Factory Steve Bernhardt said. “He does it all the time. He is just a good hitter who seems like his barrel almost always finds the ball against good pitching. The excellent bat speed he has helps that. It seems like he sees the ball pretty well at the plate.” (Baseball America).
Initially considered a possible fourth or fifth round selection, the Orioles took notice of Mountcastle’s ability, selecting him eleven picks after taking Florida State outfielder DJ Stewart as a compensation pick for losing Nelson Cruz to the Seattle Mariners.
Mountcastle quickly signed and paid a visit to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he met with club brass and had his face appear on the video board in centerfield. The chance to quickly begin a professional career prompted Mountcastle to back out of a commitment to the University of South Florida and achieve his childhood dream.
The Orioles subsequently assigned him to their Gulf Coast affiliate in rookie ball, where he quickly made his presence felt. In 175 at bats, Mountcastle compiled a .313/.349/.411 slash line with three home runs and 14 runs batted in. Mountcastle’s rapid showing earned him Orioles Minor League Player of the Month for July and a subsequent promotion to the short season Aberdeen Ironbirds on August 22nd.
Facing players roughly four or five years his senior, Mountcastle surprised many at Ripken Stadium when he homered on the second pitch he saw in his New York-Penn League debut one day later. Facing Brooklyn Cyclones pitcher Tyler Badamo that afternoon, Mountcastle tagged an offspeed pitch deep over the visiting clubhouse in left field for a two run home run, displaying his much discussed power and emphatically announced his arrival.
Daniel Kurish, the voice of the Ironbirds believes Mountcastle is adjusting well to being placed in the spotlight.
“The reason you can be so high on this kid is his bat,” Kurish said. “His bat is mightily impressive and his defense is not too bad. He will work on that as he grows into his body, but it is easy to be high on the kid when you see what he can do at the plate.”
Mountcastle collected two more hits in his second game in the circuit and held his own in a more advanced league. Through four games Mountcastle has collected hits in two of those contests and is picking off where he left off in the Gulf Coast League.
As many have surmised, Mountcastle’s value primarily resides in his bat. Quick wrists through the strike zone allow him to turn on inside pitches. In addition, Mountcastle will seek to take the ball away from his pull side and look to take the pitch to the opposite field. This tendency could lead to pitchers throwing him breaking pitches out the strike zone, causing him to chase. If Mountcastle can utilize his keen batting eye and exclusive swing at strikes he can maintain his stellar offensive statistics.
“I think he needs to keep swinging the bat well,” Kurish said. “At 18 years old he has a bit more room to be able to grow into his body and bulk up in the offseason with the professional training to get his body where it needs to be.”
Perhaps Mountcastle’s biggest challenge is whether he can remain at shortstop. At six foot three and close to 200 pounds, his profile is larger than the typical player at the position. This leads to the perception by many baseball people and scouts that Mountcastle would be better suited playing third base or a corner position.
In 47 games across two levels, Mountcastle committed eleven errors and has seen some time as the designated hitter to keep his bat in the starting lineup. His tendency to take a delayed path to the baseball has caused him to double clutch throws and led to some fielding miscues. At 18 years of age, Mountcastle has time to correct those issues and become an adequate defender either at shortstop or another spot on the diamond.
Selecting a high school player early in the draft created a considerable risk and investment. More development time is afforded to the player but it comes at the expense of big league club. Failure to cultivate a scout’s assessment leads to potential job loss and a damaged reputation in player evaluation. Adversely, if the youngster lives up to the advance billing a team will have six prime years in the big leagues with a chance to become a difference maker. Since the advent of Moneyball, high school players have become an undervalued commodity due to colossal risk. A position player neutralizes such gambles since injury is less pronounced than a pitcher.
In Ryan Mountcastle’s case, his progression comes down to honing his skills which supplement his offensive production. The challenge arises once he advances through the Orioles farm system where he likely stands to become one of the youngest players in every league he becomes a participant. For someone no stranger to the situation, Mountcastle stands to surprise opponents with his bat and slowly emerge as the Orioles best shortstop prospect in two decades.