Yoan Moncada has frustrated talent evaluators over the past two years. He’s about as physically talented as a baseball player can be; while still a prospect, the team here at FanGraphs thought he merited future grades of 60 hit, 60 power, 70 speed, 50 field, and 70 throw, with an OFP of 70 good for No. 1 overall prospect status. Prospects don’t get evaluated much better than that; in fact, a 70 OVR on a position player is as good as it gets. He was the kind of prospect that could headline a trade for a top-five starting pitcher, a bonafide ace, in his prime on a team-friendly contract with three years left.
Flash forward two years, about a year and a half into Moncada’s major league career, and he hasn’t performed quite as billed. Instead, in 901 career plate appearances before Opening Day 2019, he posted a 97 career wRC+ and 3.1 total fWAR, almost exactly league-average or slightly below. His defense at second base has not impressed, and so he’s being moved to the hot corner in the wake of 1) the White Sox whiffing on Manny Machado, and 2) the White Sox drafting “future Gold Glove second sacker” Nick Madrigal with the 4th overall pick in 2018. If nothing changes, he’s be in danger of becoming a utilityman.
Moncada’s offensive struggles are a little unusual. He has two traits required to be an offensive monster — power and patience — in abundance. Last year, his average exit velo of 90.6 mph was in the 86th percentile, while his 4.12 pitches seen per PA was in the 81st percentile. However, those positive traits were offset by the modern game’s bugaboo — strikeouts. Moncada struck out in an ugly 33.4% of his PAs last year, behind only Chris Davis and Joey Gallo, and his career K rate sat at 33.6% this offseason. This is very concerning, as contact issues are a flaw that are difficult to resolve.
The profile above seems to describe a three-true-outcomes hitter like the aforementioned Gallo. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that how Moncada struck out that often is not normal, and in a sense he doesn’t actually have contact issues, at least not 33.4% bad. He didn’t chase many pitches out of the zone last year — only 23.3% — sitting in the 87th percentile of qualified hitters. Neither does his whiff rate of 12.2% (league average in 2018 was 10.7%) jibe with that huge strikeout rate. Taken together, we can conclude that while Moncada’s contact ability may be somewhat below-average, he limits how much he swings-and-misses by rarely chasing pitches out of the zone. So if Moncada doesn’t chase much, and doesn’t swing and miss that much, how is he striking out so much?
He gets caught looking. A lot. A lot a lot. As in, set-a-record-for-times-caught-looking a lot. He was caught looking 85 times in 2018, to be exact. The runner-up in this category was Davis, with 56 backwards Ks on the year. Of course, that still only accounts for 39.4% of his total strikeouts; he still does swing-and-miss plenty. In short, the combo of passivity and below-average contact ability is what drives his strikeout rate so high.
Passivity is a lot easier to fix than contact issues, at least in theory. Moncada needs to swing more, not less, unlike most guys with strikeout problems. He does have a plate approach issue, but it’s the inverse of the usual — he’s too picky, not taking indiscriminate hacks at every slider. If he can fix that, he might be back on the fast track to stardom he was supposed to be on all along.
Will he actually make progress with this flaw in his approach? First, we can hesitantly look at how his spring went. Spring training stats are generally considered worthless; for instance, if you, presumably a well-informed baseball fan judging by the fact that you read FanGraphs Community Posts, were told that Yoan Moncada finished spring training hitting .358/.469/.642 (1.110 OPS), you would dismiss it and be justified in doing so.
Spring triple-slashes don’t matter. Spring plate discipline, though, does matter. Therefore, if I told you Yoan Moncada finished spring training with 16 strikeouts and 11 walks in 64 PAs, good for a 25% strikeout rate and a 17.2% walk rate, you should sit up and take notice a bit.
This doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily bring all of those plate discipline gains with him from Arizona to the regular season. About this time last year, I wrote a similar piece about Matt Davidson and his spring training plate discipline gains — from 37.3% K & 4.3% BB in 2017, to 26% K and 12.3% BB in 2018 ST, to 33.3% K and 10.3% BB in the 2018 regular season. Davidson ended 2018 with a wRC+ 20 points higher than 2017’s.
Moncada hasn’t struck out much in the early going, and the result has been a hot start. He will probably not cut his strikeout rate by eight points and raise his walk rate by almost as much for the year. That said, a very talented young hitter showing a strong trend in a new season — still just his second full season, mind you — towards correcting the biggest flaw holding him back is too tasty to ignore. Moncada might blossom into the star we all thought he was going to sooner rather than later.