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Looking at Yoán Moncada’s improvement at the plate

The White Sox infielder has been around so long it’s easy to forget he’s only 24 years old.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Chicago White Sox Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The American League Central is pretty much up for grabs in 2020. 2019 turned baseball on its head, with the Cleveland Indians doing very little in the offseason, expecting to cruise to a pennant. Though the Twins didn’t make any major splashes, some rotational upgrades and a bit of luck drove a 23-win year-over-year improvement and delivered their first AL Central crown since 2010.

Meanwhile, the White Sox continue to lurk behind both Cleveland and Minnesota,and they finally appear to be turning the corner on a lengthy rebuild that has kept them out of the playoffs since 2008.

As part of the rebuild, Chicago sent perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale to the Red Sox in exchange for a number of Boston’s top prospects, including infielder Yoán Moncada. My colleague Merritt Rohlfing called out Moncada as a potential breakout candidate back in April.

Moncada’s name has been circulating around baseball circles since 2012 when he received approval from the Cuban government to pursue an MLB career at the age of 17. The Red Sox signed him at a $31.5 million bonus, and upon his matriculation into affiliated ball, consistently ranked as a top prospect in baseball.

The White Sox acquired Moncada (along with Michael Kopech and two other less-heralded prospects) in exchange for Chris Sale in December 2016. Despite making his MLB debut with Boston the previous September, he went back to the farm in Chicago’s system, and then suffered shin injuries for the latter part of 2017. He earned regular playing time in 2018, when he played in 149 games. He led the league in strikeouts that season, with 217, and posted a meager .235/.315/.400 slash line.

In 2019, Moncada cut his strikeout rate (though it’s still in the upper-tier of MLB Ks), and vastly improved his hitting for average and for power. All-in-all, he played like the top-end prospect so many scouts projected of him, some much-needed good news for the White Sox.

Although his strikeout rate trended downward between 2018 and 2019, there is still much room for improvement, particularly against the soft stuff. In 2018, Moncada whiffed 46 percent of the time on offspeed pitches, and 41 percent of the time on breaking balls. In 2019, he whiffed more often on breaking balls, nearly half of all swings were misses, though he drastically improved his offspeed swings-and-misses lowering that number down to 31 percent.

In total, Moncada offered at more pitches in 2019 than he did in 2018, but this aggressive approach led to strong results, particularly on fastballs, change ups, and sliders.

Moncada’s 2018-2019 Improvement

2018 2019
2018 2019
Fourseam Average .244 .324
Fourseam Slugging .461 .570
Change Average .207 .313
Change Slugging .366 .594
Curve Average .213 .238
Curve Slugging .361 .349
Slider Average .165 .288
Slider Slugging .253 .463

Curveballs remain Moncada’s Achilles’ Heel, though he drastically improved the results on the other pitches last season. One of the advantages to Moncada’s overly aggressive style at the plate is that he makes strong contact frequently. Only 12 percent of his contact last season was defined as softly hit, and he regularly uses all fields.

Last year his batting average on balls in play was a whopping .406, something that likely derived from a 42 percent ground ball rate combined with the hardness which he makes contact.

One of the areas of possible improvement is Moncada working on joining the fly ball revolution, and improving his 34.5 percent fly ball rate. Considering one-in-five balls he hits in the air travel over the fence, even the slightest increase in approach could yield significant dividends. In 2019, Moncada ended up belting 25 home runs, a good number for any middle infielder, but his strength and profile suggest there’s much more potential to unlock.

With the AL Central potentially up for grabs in the foreseeable future, the White Sox need Moncada to continue to make strides. By limiting the free-wheeling swings on curve balls, focusing on more uplift and increasing his launch angle, it’s possible Moncada can improve on his 5.7 win 2019 season to become a legitimate MVP candidate.

He’s only 24 years old, and he’s entering the prime of the aging curve, so provided he can continue to make adjustments, he could be the offensive leader the White Sox need to end their playoff drought.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano