When the news broke at the 2016 MLB Winter Meetings that the Chicago White Sox had finally pulled the trigger on trading Chris Sale, and that he was going to the Boston Red Sox, one main question circulated throughout the hotel lobby.
Did they give up Moncada?
Everyone was talking about Yoan Moncada, of course, the Red Sox’s prized Cuban prospect, who ranked as the second-best prospect in all of baseball by both Baseball America and MLB.com. As we all know, the answer to that question was simple: yes they did.
The hype surrounding Moncada in the two seasons since has seemed to subside. Perhaps it is because he is playing for an organization that receives much less publicity than Boston and is not in contention. Perhaps it is because people are more interested in prospects than they are in developing major league players. Perhaps it is something else.
Moncada has now played 141 games in the major leagues and has become the White Sox’s regular second baseman. He eclipsed the 600-plate appearance mark for his career on Thursday, giving us almost a full season’s worth of playing time to use in order to evaluate his Major League Baseball playing abilities.
Across his three seasons in the majors, the 23-year-old Moncada is slashing .229/.310/.409 with 19 home runs, 63 runs batted in, 73 runs scored and 12 stolen bases across 601 plate appearances. He has a 96 wRC+, a walk rate of 9.8 percent and a strikeout rate of 34.8 percent. He has been worth 2.1 fWAR, playing decent to solid defense (at times) to go along with his near league-average bat.
What’s more is that Moncada’s numbers have yet to show an upward trend. He posted a 104 wRC+ in 231 plate appearances in 2017, but that mark has fallen to 95 in 350 plate appearances in 2018. I’m not saying that there is cause for concern; Moncada is still just 23, and he only has pretty much a full season’s worth of plate appearances of experience under his belt. But the strikeouts continue to pile up and the walks aren’t there at the same rate that they were in 2017.
Moncada still has phenomenal talent, and it has shown—mainly in flashes—during his time in the major leagues. Especially this year, he is doing an exceptional job at avoiding ground balls; Moncada’s 38.7 percent ground ball rate, per Statcast, is 7.2 percentage points below the Major League average. His 92.3 MPH average exit velocity is in the top five percent of batters. His 49.0 percent hard hit rate is in the top four percent.
These numbers are excellent, and they suggest that Moncada should have much better numbers than he actually does. Moncada’s wOBA this year is .307; his expected wOBA is .330. In essence, Moncada is hitting like Zack Cozart but should be hitting like Wil Myers. So, he shouldn’t be a superstar, but he should be clearly better.
There is one underlying problem in Moncada’s game that has kept him from elevating it to the next level: his inability to hit breaking pitches. Moncada is hitting .135 with a .270 slugging percentage against breaking pitches, which include sliders, curveballs and knuckleballs. If that sounds bad, consider this.
He has had 79 plate appearances end with a breaking pitch; he has struck out in 43, for a 54.4 strikeout rate. He has swung and missed at 52.2 percent of these pitches. He’s only slightly better against offspeed pitches: the splitters, the change-ups, the forkballs and the screwballs.
And this is becoming a larger problem as Moncada’s career has progressed. Pitchers adjust. Moncada saw a fastball 62.0 percent of the time over the course of the 2017 season. In 2018, he’s seen a fastball only 57.6 percent of the time. What pitches are pitchers throwing him? You guessed it: breaking pitches.
Moncada also struggles to hit when pitches are below the strike zone, on both the inside and outside.
Pitchers pitch him there, with 30 percent of the pitches he’s seen this season coming in those two quadrants. That is exactly where the majority of his whiffs come.
But, since these quadrants are outside the zone, they are also where Moncada’s walks come.
It’s easier said than done, but with all of this considered, it’s pretty clear to me to see where Moncada must make his adjustments. He must command the bottom of the strike zone better. This will allow him to diminish his high strikeout rate and raise his walk rate simultaneously. With this must come better pitch recognition. He needs to lay off the soft stuff and do his best to wait for a fastball.
But, in the long run, Moncada must learn how to hit the soft stuff, especially when it is in his wheelhouse. This will take time, and it may be frustrating, but in order for Moncada to tap into his full potential, these changes are absolutely necessary.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.