After 'All Star-type' year, Mancini aims higher

October 17th, 2019

’s exit interview came earlier than most. Weeks before the schedule concluded, he was meeting with Orioles manager Brandon Hyde to discuss how he could build on his breakout 2019 campaign, when Mancini emerged as the face of the franchise, the linchpin of the lineup and one of the more productive hitters in baseball.

The goal of these conversations was simple: to brainstorm ways Mancini could be even better. The improvement he spent all summer showcasing made that a priority.

“He had an amazing year,” Hyde said. “He’s done everything for us this year, an All Star-type year, a great player, one of the better years in the American League.”

What went right

By hitting .291/.364/.535 with 35 home runs and 97 RBIs, Mancini set career highs in every major offensive category. He finished as the Orioles’ leader in doubles, homers, RBIs, OBP, SLG, weighted on-base average, weighted runs-created plus, isolated slugging and total bases. He was one of four MLB players -- along with Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman and Trevor Story -- to compile at least 100 runs scored, 35 homers and 35 two-baggers.

In short, it was an elite year. And it was largely different from Mancini’s 2018 campaign, when he slumped to a .242/.299/.416 after his third-place AL Rookie of the Year finish in 2017. In 2019, Mancini lowered his strikeouts, increased his walks and drove the ball more consistently, especially to the opposite field. Twenty-six of Mancini’s homers went to center or right, the most among right-handed hitters in the AL.

“Over the course of the season, you saw Trey getting some experience and more plate discipline,” Hyde said. “When you grow as a hitter, you’ll see him hit the ball in the air a lot more with authority.”

What went wrong

There was the All-Star snub, which devastated Mancini but was less a function of his production than it was the AL’s bounty of deserving outfielders. Related or not, Mancini’s most protracted slump came in the weeks wrapped around the All-Star break, though he hit for enough power to keep his overall numbers afloat. Besides that, he had as consistent an offensive season as any Oriole, and grew into a leadership role within the Baltimore clubhouse.

If there was one knock on Mancini, it was his defense, which has always suffered from the fact that he often plays out of position. Those instances became less frequent towards the end of 2019, when the Orioles began giving Mancini everyday reps at his natural first base while relegating to a reserve role and auditioning several young outfielders at the corner spots. Mancini ended up making a career-high 51 starts at first, along with 87 in right field, five in left and 17 at designated hitter. He started just 40 times at first in 2018 and 35 as a rookie the year prior.

Whether that continues to trend upward remains to be seen. Even if Davis’ role remains reduced, the Orioles will soon need to find opportunities for No. 4 prospect Ryan Mountcastle, who shares much of Mancini’s defensive profile. The presence of , , and other bat-first corner types probably means Mancini continues to bounce around in 2020, despite what’s best for him.

What’s clear is playing Mancini in the outfield zaps his value considerably. While he rates fairly average at first, Mancini ranks as one of MLB’s worst outfield defenders by Outs Above Average, DRS, UZR and other metrics. He registered a -1.5 defensive WAR in 2019, 10th lowest in MLB.

Best moment

Mancini finished the season on a tear, so let’s go with his most complete performance from that stretch. It came on September 24 in Toronto, when Mancini’s first career five-hit game paced an 11-4 victory over the Blue Jays. Mancini doubled twice, scored twice and drove in a run, finishing 5-for-5. He was soon named the American League Player of the Week, and he wound up hitting .365/.433/.615 in September.

2020 outlook

As the season drew to a close, club officials spoke regularly about how much they expect from Mancini in 2020, when they hope he can assume an even larger clubhouse role and tap into even more power at the plate. The conversation painted Mancini as someone they plan to build around, and perhaps they will.

Might that mean exploring the option of an extension for Mancini? It’s something the Orioles have not yet been willing to do. On the flip side, they are all but certain to gauge his value on the trade market this winter, as they did at last summer’s July 31 deadline. The reason why is obvious: Mancini, who will turn 28 in March, remains under team control through 2023 and profiles as their most valuable chip. He is in line for a sizable raise as a first-time arbitration-eligible player this winter, but even with a projected salary of over $5 million, he still qualifies as an extreme bargain given his 2019 production.

Simply put, given how far the Orioles are from contending, they must decide how Mancini factors into their long-term plans. It’s a question they figure to explore in earnest over the next few months.

“The losses hurt him, he takes it really hard,” Hyde said. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself, and I wish he would just relax a little bit. But it really matters to him if we win or lose, so I give him a ton of credit for sticking with this and [I’m] looking forward to the day when he’s on a winning club.”