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What Does Trey Mancini's Breakout Season Mean For The Orioles?

May 28, 2019
In a season filled with mounting losses and dwindling on-field storylines, Trey Mancini is one of the few Orioles actually performing well. He leads the Orioles in most of the important hitting categories: wRC+ (135), wOBA (.374), on-base percentage (.353), slugging percentage (.547) and isolated power (.241). His 1.3 wins above replacement (FanGraphs' version) is also the best among O's position players, just ahead of Pedro Severino (1.0). 

Calling Mancini the Orioles' best regular isn't exactly high praise considering the makeup of the rebuilding roster, but it's still a nice honor. Mancini made his big-league debut back in 2016 as a relatively overlooked first-base prospect, and the Orioles ended up finding a role for him in the outfield. His 118 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR in his rookie season (2017) were welcome surprises.

Then 2018 happened. Just about everything that could go wrong for the Orioles last season did, and that included Mancini finishing the year with a 93 wRC+ and an fWAR of -0.2. To be fair, he did suffer a knee injury early in the season when he slid into an unpadded section of brick wall in foul territory in left field. He then only missed a couple of games and dealt with any lingering pain for the rest of the year. It's unknown precisely how much the injury hindered him, but he was noticeably better in the second half (first half: 79 wRC+; second half: 110 wRC+). 

Interestingly, while Mancini's numbers are better across the board, his improvement hasn't come from hitting the ball harder. Via Statcast, Mancini's average exit velocity on batted balls this season is 89.4; last year, it was 89.9. Instead of hitting the ball harder, he's hit it differently: in the air. Mancini's current launch angle of 10.3 would easily be a career best (7.2 in 2017 and 5.4 in 2018). Unlike the last two seasons, when Mancini hit the ball on the ground more than half the time, he's sliced his percentage of ground balls to 36.9 percent. In their place, he's added line drives and fly balls. 

Considering his hard-hit percentage and elevated batting average on balls in play (.354), there's probably some amount of luck in play here. But Mancini's expected wOBA of .368 isn't much different than his actual wOBA (.374), and it would be a career high. He's also on pace to hit more than 30 home runs (previous career best of 24).
In addition to lofting the ball, Mancini is hitting it with authority to the opposite field. When he's looking like the best version of himself, he's smacking the ball up the middle and to the right-center field gap. Just look at the difference between his spray chart heat map in 2018 vs. 2019: 

Trey Mancini heatmap 
It's not hard to see the difference, and it's been paying dividends for Mancini. Plus, it helps that besides the changes to his batted ball profile, Mancini has been walking slightly more (7.2 BB%) and striking out less (21.7 K%).

There are also some changes between Mancini's batting stance and approach at the end of last season and this past week. Last September, he was using a slightly closed stance and a more pronounced leg kick: 

Trey Mancini screengrab 1 
Not only has he opened up his stance a bit, but he's sporting a c-flap helmet and a shin guard on his left leg. The leg kick is also less deliberate: 

Trey Mancini screengrab 2

The 2019 version of Mancini looks more compact and comfortable, and he's doing some damage.

Considering this club's rebuilding phase, the question turns to ... should Mancini be a trade chip? Some have argued that because of his improved hitting and strong clubhouse presence that Mancini should be an extension candidate or that *gulp* the Orioles should even build around him. Isn't the lesson of being wary of building around first-base (and less athletic) types already reinforced every time Chris Davis steps to the plate? Keeping Mancini around certainly wouldn't cost nearly as much as Davis's contract, but Mancini has never reached the highs Davis did, either.

Mancini may be breaking out at the plate, but he's still a poor corner outfielder who is being forced to play out of position due to the presence of Davis, and Ryan Mountcastle could be promoted later this season. He's still 27 years old and is about to begin arbitration next season. And with Alex Cobb on the 60-day injured list, Mychal Givens taking steps back and Andrew Cashner threatening to walk away from baseball if he's traded, Mancini looks even more like the Orioles' least-flawed trade asset.

Thinking about the Orioles without Mancini on the roster isn't much fun. But it's also not very much fun without Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman and many others who are no longer on the team. And even with those players, the Orioles were still terrible in 2018.

The Orioles need a massive infusion of talent. They're going to add talent in the MLB Draft, and they're going to add it through finally spending internationally. They're also making progress in player development, particularly in the lowest levels of the farm system. But there's no limit on how much young talent they need to add. The answer to that question is always "more." 

Mancini is a fan favorite on a team that doesn't have many options, and the Orioles don't have to move him right now. Again, he has three arbitration years remaining, and perhaps other teams out there aren't sold on this current version. It's not like Mancini is about to head out the door, so there's no need to panic. 

Still, refusing to at least explore what Mancini could bring back would be silly. In all likelihood, it wouldn't be a game-changing package of prospects. But things change, and it only takes one team to get enamored with a certain player. 

Mancini has a lot going for him, but he's not a star player who the O's need to build around. He's a bat-first player who's unable to regularly play where he fits in best, and he's about to get more expensive starting next season. Keeping him around for a while longer would be an acceptable consolation prize, but it would be even better to get an intriguing return to supplement the organization's other prospect acquisition efforts.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox