Vertigo presented a number of challenges for Ryan Mountcastle.
First it was the strange feeling of dizziness in the field. Then the difficulty picking up the ball out of the pitcher’s hand at the plate. And, finally, an absence from the game, a month away from the big leagues as he managed the symptoms while on the injured list.
But perhaps the most difficult part, he said, was when he began his minor league rehabilitation assignment with the Norfolk Tides. The first baseman was slumping at the plate before he began experiencing vertigo, and those struggles continued when he returned against minor league pitching. He went 0-for-12 with five strikeouts in his first three rehab games.
“I was like, ‘It’s Triple-A, I should be able to kill it,’” Mountcastle recalls thinking. “I still was having symptoms, and I was like ‘Is this ever going to go away?”
Those vertigo symptoms — the sensation that the environment around oneself is moving or spinning — did dissipate during that rehab assignment. After 19 days with Norfolk, he returned to Baltimore and said he was “happy to be back and to feel like a normal human again.”
Now, he’s hitting like Ryan Mountcastle again.
The 26-year-old slugger is 10-for-30 at the plate since he returned the day before the All-Star break. In the small sample, he has a .394 on-base percentage and a .533 slugging percentage — good for a .927 OPS. His OPS dipped below .700 in early June when he experienced vertigo in Milwaukee, but it’s since climbed to .713 — far from outstanding, but closer to his career mark of .763.
This week against the Philadelphia Phillies, he had his best offensive series since May. Mountcastle hit a solo home run to straightaway center field in Monday’s one-run victory and reached base four times, going 2-for-2 with two walks, in Tuesday’s loss. He went 0-for-3 in Wednesday’s loss, but he walked to extend his on-base streak in games he’s started to eight.
“I feel like everything’s feeling good,” Mountcastle said. “My body feels normal. Just seeing the ball a lot better. I think it’s starting to show. To finally be able to feel like myself again is definitely a joy.”
Manager Brandon Hyde eased Mountcastle back into game action to begin the second half of the season while also deploying him mostly against left-handed pitchers, platooning the right-handed hitter with Ryan O’Hearn, a lefty. In 13 second-half games, the platoon of Mountcastle and O’Hearn have combined to slash .322/.369/.559 — good for a .928 OPS — in 65 plate appearances.
Mountcastle didn’t start back-to-back games until last weekend against the Tampa Bay Rays, but he started all three games at Citizens Bank Park and has been in five of Hyde’s past six lineups.
“If he can take those type of at-bats, it makes our club different, just the added power,” said Hyde, referencing Mountcastle reaching base four times Tuesday. “There’s a lot of things that Mounty can do well. Since he’s been back, I felt like his at-bats have improved.”
Mountcastle becoming a platoon player isn’t as surprising as O’Hearn’s emergence, but it was expected entering the season that the power hitter would be an everyday staple in Baltimore’s lineup. No Oriole hit more home runs or drove in more runs between 2021 and 2022 than Mountcastle (55 homers, 174 RBIs).
He played almost every day before he began slumping in late May and then dealing with vertigo. Before he was placed on the injured list, Mountcastle was hitting .161 with a .516 OPS in his past 22 games.
“It’s different,” Mountcastle said of his current role. “That’s nothing I’ve experienced before, but I’m taking it day by day and just trying to help the team. … It’s something new to me. Just staying ready on the bench whenever my name is called. Just excited to still be here.”
The time in Triple-A also gave Mountcastle the opportunity to make “tweaks” with his swing.
Early this season, he had a noticeable backward lean in his batting stance before the pitcher delivered the ball. Mountcastle said he tried it out in batting practice early in the season, started doing it in games to “free up the inside corner a little bit,” got a few hits the first time he did it, and stuck with it. His lean was perhaps most noticeable during the Orioles’ four-game series against the Oakland Athletics, in which Mountcastle went 5-for-16 with four home runs, including his nine-RBI game.
But as time went on, it started to hinder Mountcastle’s timing, and he’s ditched the lean.
“It was just sort of me trying to figure out my own swing and what works for me,” he said. “I’d make little tweaks here and there, whether it’s in BP or whatnot, with whatever feels comfortable that day. When I wasn’t feeling comfortable anymore, I just got rid of it.”
The goal for Mountcastle — with his swing, his mind and his body — is to be as “relaxed” as he can when he’s playing, especially in the batter’s box. He doesn’t think the confidence he’s felt in the past, like against the Athletics when 95 mph fastballs looked like “a beach ball,” is far off.
“It sort of messes with your confidence. It sort of gets in your head,” Mountcastle said of having vertigo. “Finally, I’m starting to get that confidence back.”