This past Saturday, baseball’s top prospect and White Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada experienced yet another first in his career: He faced Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians. This is both the first time he’s seen Kluber in his career, something he’ll have to get used to for at least the next four years or so, and also the first truly elite pitcher he’s faced. He saw a past Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta and another finalist in Kyle Hendricks (and Jon Lester) during the Crosstown Cup a few weeks back, but none of these guys are quite as excellent this year as they’ve been in the past. Kluber, on the other hand, is in the process of building yet another award-candidacy of a campaign. One game is not a referendum on a career, especially as a rookie against one of the best in the game. But still, let’s see how Moncada did.
Moncada faced Kluber three times and struck out twice. But the box score doesn’t tell the whole story. (That’s kinda the point of this entire site.) Each at-bat tells a story, one of preparation and readiness, of strengths and weaknesses. And each is informed on by those prior. So before we look, here is how right-handed pitchers have attacked Moncada in his short career:
Makes some sense — keep it down, keep it away from him. He has incredible bat speed and incredible swing and miss potential. Both those stories are told in how pitchers have attacked him thus far — keep it away from the middle and inside, where a speedy bat can get solid wood on it, and make him chase, as he is prone to do. So, with all that in mind, here we go:
Moncada was slotted in the four spot for the game, right behind Jose Abreu. Abreu has bedeviled Kluber for years, owning a 1.053 OPS against the pitcher. So you’d think Moncada might get a less than focused Kluber. Instead he got this:
It makes sense not to swing. You want a first-hand look at what the pitcher does on the mound. But this was a filthy pitch, one of Kluber’s best of the day. Moncada wouldn’t have done anything with it except shorten his at-bat if he’d swung. He did swing the next pitch though, and looked like a rookie.
That’s a nice change-up by Kluber, and if anything it’s amazing Moncada got the bat on it, but this was classic pitch sequencing. Hard in, soft away, and get it to 0-2. How Moncada handled the next pitch impressed me though:
Handled might be the wrong word, but laying off the high heat like that, while being down 0-2 and being prone to swinging a lot and missing a bunch, shows uncommon composure for a rookie. I’d have swung at that. I have swung at that in MLB The Show. I am not good. But Moncada has shown twinkles of that advanced, mature. In fact, as the at-bat wore on, that composure grew increasingly more vivid.
After laying off a high fastball, this curve Kluber drops on Moncada should have buckled the hitter’s knees. That’s Kluber’s bread and butter, what makes him so great. We’ve seen this pitch wipe out much more proven hitters, yet the rookie just spits on it. Now, we don’t know if he was utterly frozen and simply couldn’t do anything due to confusion an fear, but he at least looked like he knew what was coming and what to do.
Kluber handed Moncada a cookie there, and all that could be done was foul it off. It’s understandable that he wasn’t quite ready for such a hung pitch; it’s his first time facing the best pitcher in the division, maybe the league. He wasn’t expecting it, but he kept the at-bat alive. But then…
It died. Basically the same pitch that Kluber flashed to open the at-bat, and again there’s nothing to be done with it. Moncada probably thought it was going to graze his hip before it ran back and was a clean strike. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or Joey Votto — you just walk back and shake your head. There’s a reason Corey Kluber is who he is, and that was a perfect example. Still, Monada lasted about three pitches more than I expected him to when the at-bat began.
This one went a bit quicker, just two pitches resulting in an out. Here’s Brooks Baseball’s plot:
That’s from Kluber’s perspective. The first pitch was perfectly placed, there’s no way around it; like the first and last pitch of the previous PA, cutting the black on the outside corner is tough to work around. That either becomes a whiff or a dribbler to third if you swing. But the second pitch turned out a bit better for Moncada:
It’s an out, but a loud out to deep, deep center. No out is good, but this one is better than most. It’s the best silver lining one could hope for while still achieving nothing on the scoreboard. Moncada got a pitch to hit, and he hit it high and far. In a few years that out will become four bases, once he bulks up some. For now though, Moncada and his coaches just have to be happy with trusting in the process.
Moncada’s last face-off with Kluber gave him another new experience — seeing an elite pitcher getting a pitcher’s call from the umpire. As this plot shows:
Kluber was working Moncada up a lot, which, as the earlier zone profile I posted showed, is something Moncada hasn’t seen much of this year when batting lefty. In fact, he’s seen precisely three pitches up and in all year, including in this at-bat. One of those he chased to poor effect. And then this happened:
Call it a good frame job by Yan Gomes, call it the umpire being deferential to an ace, call it a bad call, whatever. The above plot does not do it justice, or might just be wrong, I don’t know. You could argue Moncada got jobbed there, but that happens when you face a great pitcher. Like with superstar calls in basketball, sometimes the big guy on the mound gets a call that isn’t quite right. Until that fateful, dreadful day we end up with robot umps and they ultimately take over the world with their precise ball and strikecalling, this is the reality that players like Moncada will have to deal with.
I don’t know if anything that happened with Moncada was a “welcome to the Show” moment, aside from perhaps that last pitch. But he comported himself decently well. He worked a six pitch at-bat before striking out (one of 12 Kluber had that day) and hit the ball really hard. He’s been doing that a lot: Moncada’s hard-hit rate is 40 percent of his batted balls and his BABIP is only .158. He’s better than the batting line shows, and had a better day at the plate against Kluber than “0-3, 2K” tells us.
Also, the White Sox broadcast crew, Jason Benetti and Steve Stone, were wonderful on Saturday. Benetti was quoting FanGraphs stats, a far cry from Hawk Harrelson. Benetti is the man. And we got this picture:
Both teams were wearing throwbacks from the nineteen-teens. It was fun. Moncada had some amazing defensive plays, and that was fun too. He might be a problem for the AL Central in years to come, and he certainly had a learning experience on Saturday against the division’s best. The results weren’t there, but the process, that was strong.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball and old timey clothes at Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe. He podcasts on Mostly Baseball, the greatest podcast. He enjoys hummus toast. Hear more about it at @merrittrohlfing.