A funny thing to do is to go back and look at the 2014-15 Royals and see how much their best players are paid, and why. One good example of how their payroll didn’t even eclipse $100 million was, for example, Alcides Escobar, who signed a four-year extension in 2012 to buy out his arbitration.
He was just a .280 wOBA hitter the season prior so that made sense to him, financially, and the Royals knew another secret: defensive metrics are not as heavily valued in arbitration. Despite his $3 million yearly salary, he put up 8.6 fWAR in those four years despite never putting up even close to a league-average wRC+. Lorenzo Cain was a better offensive player but he never made more than $11 million per year in arbitration; in his second-to-last arbitration year he made just $6.5 million after putting up a 6.1 fWAR season.
This is the Royals model, and it is likely to remain the model as long as their financial station remains as such. Does this excuse them from not doubling down on their core with some free agent signings after they won a World Series? Of course not, as the likes of Cain and Mike Moustakas are now thriving elsewhere. Yet it’s still likely going to be fundamental part of their rebuilding strategy, to stock up on defense-first players who accumulate value without it really showing up on the stat sheet.
A player that typifies that strategy in 2019 is none other than Adalberto Mondesi. Mondesi was signed in 2011 for a whopping $2 million, and he made history for being the first player to debut in the World Series. Yes, he’s currently on the injured list with a groin issue, but talking about his improvements and performance thus far tell an important story about how the Royals will rise again.
Offensively, there’s a lot to like when you consider his 2018, even with the step back he’s taken in 2019. His launch angle has fallen a couple of degrees, one of the primary reasons alongside hard-hit rate that his BABIP and overall wRC+ have fallen. Yet his actual value in runs has jumped, and by FanGraphs he’s already been worth over two wins, despite playing in a hair less than a half-season.
The reason for this is defensively, where the Royals butter their bread, and we’ll get into the metrics. By the eye test he seems rather convincing:
Adalberto Mondesi 89.7 mph— David Adler (@_dadler) May 8, 2019
spin-o-rama double play turn to get Jose Altuve pic.twitter.com/L1UkiT0MtF
Statistically... well, let’s get into it. By Statcast’s catch probability metric...
...he hasn’t made a ton of stellar catches, but he has made one of a 5% probability and another of a 35% probability, and he hasn’t really missed many on the left side that are considered more guaranteed outs.
Here is where he ranks in the Inside Edge fielding categories for shortstops:
- # of 1-10%: 7th
- # of 10-40%: 10th
- # of 40-60%: 3rd
He hasn’t made the number of stunning plays of, say, Brandon Crawford or Orlando Arcia, but the metrics seem to peg him at a solid 60-grade defender. By UZR/150 only one shortstop has been better, and that’s Nick Ahmed. By DRS he has saved about five runs, which ranks ninth, just ahead of Corey Seager.
Where you think he ranks defensively is of some importance, because if he’s actually a 70-grade defender then he’s a perennial All-Star, and if he’s lower, then he’s Alcides Escobar with new clothes.
Not to mention the speed, of course. Mondesi even with his injury already has 27 stolen bags, just five away from his total from last year. He has 9.9 BaseRunning Runs by FanGraphs over the last two seasons, and the only players with more in 2019 are Mallex Smith and Kolten Wong.
Yes, Mondesi, with defense and speed and all, could very well be an under-the-radar four-win player for a team that desperately needs one. What trajectory he truly takes comes down to his batted ball abilities, which could take three years for us to fully understand which direction that is going. Yet the price will be low in arbitration dollars no matter what, and he should be around as the whole on-field product improves. Mondesi is the connective tissue that could tie one World Series winner to another.