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The Next Step: White Sox hitters

Yoán Moncada and Tim Anderson are keys to the rebuild, but have not reached their potential yet

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins
He’s got the whole rebuild in his hands: Yoán Moncada was the cornerstone of the new White Sox when he was acquired, and needs to step up in 2019.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the White Sox starters and relievers, the top Sox young hitters have not reached their potential. Yoan Moncada has shown spurts over his two years, but has never been able to put together a whole season. Tim Anderson had a great first half-season but faltered in 2017, which was connected to personal issues, but still was not very good in 2018.

What can the pair fix to step up their games? Well, there’s always a pitch or two a hitter can improve on, for the most part.

Before we get to the nitty gritty, let me say this about hitting. Batters are reacting to pitches: They cannot control where pitches go, how much the ball spins, or how fast the pitch moves. Most batters need to improve on the same things because there is a limited amount they can actually control. So, beware of some repetition, though I certainly attempted to avoid it.

Yoan Moncada: Swing like the first and last month of 2018

This might be a controversial take but, Yoán Moncada should swing less often. The tough thing about that is that less frequent swinging, does not necessarily mean success or failure. A great hitter may swing a lot, like Freddie Freeman, or not much at all, like Mike Trout. What is different with Moncada is that he lives off of how great his contact is — but does not make a ton of it. However, when Moncada was at his best in 2018 were the months when he was swinging less.

Overall, Moncada swings at 41% of the pitches he sees, which is 5.5% below the MLB average, and swings 24.3% of the time on first pitches, 3.7% less than the average. To break that down even further, Moncada is below average in swinging at pitches both out and inside the zone. He is actually 8.3% below the average in chase rate, which is fantastic.

Now, what happens when Moncada makes contact? A lot of good, actually. For average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, in 2018 Moncada was in the 82nd and 85th percentile in all of baseball, respectively. As you can see in the heat map below, there is not a significant difference in average exit velocity when Moncada bats left- or right-handed.

Moncada average exit velocity per zone: on the left is his left-handed hitting, on the right is right-handed.
Baseball Savant

On top of the exit velocity, Moncada’s barrel rate was at 9.6%, just more than 3% better than the average MLB hitter. If you do not believe how great Moncada’s contact is, he had a wOBACON of .403, which was right around Alex Bregman’s wOBA last season. In short, Moncada makes great contact, which is usually the harder aspect of hitting to fix. Where Moncada falls short, and why he has disappointed in his first two years, is his lack of contact.

Moncada is worse than the MLB average in every statistic that involves making contact, which explains his strikeouts and why he can be such a maddening player. Moncada’s whiff rate is an atrocious 7.1% more than the MLB average last season. This led to a zone-contact rate that was 6% worse than average and a chase contact rate that was 14.2% below average. Now, making contact out of the zone usually does not translate to good contact, but it helps extend at-bats and cuts down on strikeouts. Obviously, Moncada could not do that, as the majority of his swinging strikeouts occurred down and out of the zone.

Moncada’s 2018 swing by zone is on the left, 2018 strikeouts per zone is on the right.
Baseball Savant

So, what have we established so far? Moncada has a good eye, but when he swings he does not make as much contact as he should — which is why swinging less often has worked out for him in the past.

Now, a lot of Moncada’s atrocious swinging and strikeouts came in the two months after returning from injury, in late May and June 2018. From May 15 to June 30, Moncada had a swing rate at 43.7%. In that breakdown, his O-swing % was 26.1 and his Z-swing % was 65.3. His wRC+ was 52. That was 254th out of 292 hitters.

In the first month of the season, from March 29 to April 29, Moncada was one of the best hitters in baseball. His swing rate was down to 41.8%. The O-swing was also down to 22.4% and his Z-swing rate was down to 64.3%. That helped lead to a wRC+ of 139, 56th out of 286 MLB hitters.

Finally, Moncada’s second-best month was September, where again his swing rate was down from his terrible May and June. Moncada’s total swing rate was down to 40.8%. The O-swing rate was very similar to his first month of games, at 22.5%. However, the first difference here is that Moncada did swing more often at pitches inside the zone, at a 67.1% rate. The reason why the overall swing rate was the lowest in September was because Moncada saw a lot more pitches outside the zone, especially on the first pitch. Moncada’s wRC+ for September was 115. That was 105th out of 293 batters.

This analysis does go against the general consensus that Moncada needs to swing more, because he did strikeout multiple times looking. That makes people angry, but maybe that is what made Moncada great in his first and last months of 2018. He did not change his approach at the plate, and looked for his pitch to hit — and when he hit the pitch, it very often led to a positive result. Even in the successful months in 2018, Moncada still had a bad contact rate inside the zone, which means taking pitches might be the best way for Moncada to find his pitch.

At any rate, 2019 is a significant year for Moncada, and this is the season he needs to step up and realize his potential. That is something all fans should agree on.

Tim Anderson: Improve against the slider and regain form against changeups

First off, Tim Anderson seems to be a future fixture because, well, there are not very many shortstops in the organization that can challenge him. But Anderson still has the potential to be a good offensive shortstop. He is a great baserunner and has good pop for the position. His .166 ISO was 13th among the 30 shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances in 2018, and his 20 homers were tied for seventh. Anderson is also only one of four shortstops that had a 20-20 season in 2018.

Second, Anderson seems to be a defensive shortstop of the future because well, there are still not many options to replace him. However, his defensive potential definitely outweighs his potential as a hitter. Anderson has the speed to help him earn the eighth spot among shortstops in the FanGraphs range metric. He also has the arm strength to play shortstop; however, that doesn’t mean he has a very accurate arm, though it was much improved down the stretch last season. But even with his defensive improvements, Anderson had 0 DRS saved in 2018, which was 17th out of 27 shortstops with 700 innings played. Like Moncada, this is also a big year for Anderson, because overall he has not proved to be anything but a below-average shortstop.

Though the power-speed combo is good for Anderson, there is not much else there as of yet as a hitter. The 2017 season was bad all around for Anderson, on and off the field. However, his wRC+ in 2018 only rose from 78 to 85, and neither number is anything to be proud of. The 2018 season still saw improvement, as Anderson’s BB% rose from a beyond-terrible 2.1%, to a still-bad 5%. Meanwhile, his K% only fell from 26.7% to 24.6%. This is not the sort of miniscule improvement a top prospect should have after playing 245 games. These stats are even worse when they are coupled with the fact that Anderson’s exit velocity (85.6 mph) in 2018 was in only the 10th percentile of baseball. Meanwhile, his hard-hit rate (27.9%) was in the 11th percentile, and a career worst.

But even with the many flaws in Anderson’s offensive game, his approach and results against the slider and changeup stand out.

Let’s start with the change, a pitch before the 2018 season Anderson was able to crush, though it had not been used often against him. For many of the next few heat maps, RAA/100 pitches is used (runs above average per 100 pitches).

Tim Anderson’s RAA/100 pitches per zone against the change-up: 2017 on the left, and 2018 on the right.

A hitter’s wRC+ against changeups is generally higher, so when Anderson had a 94 wRC+ last season, that is actually much worse than below average. Last season was actually Anderson’s best year against the change in many respects, as it was his highest wRC+ against the pitch (140) and his highest ISO. Though the BABIP was high in 2017 against the change at .457, Anderson had his lowest ground ball rate and highest exit velocity against the pitch in the same season. So it was not necessarily all luck, but just making better contact is generally not a good tip to say to a hitter.

What Anderson can do is cut down on his errant swinging against the change. Since 2016, his O-swing has gone up about 11% each year, from 45.5% in 2016, to 67% in 2018; that is bad. What is even worse is that while Anderson was swinging at 67% of the pitches out of the zone, only 30% of changeups Anderson saw last season were inside the zone. That is a ton of unnecessary chasing, which you can see that below with the vast overlap.

Tim Anderson’s 2018 pitch % is on the left. His swing rate against the change is on the right.

Anderson only saw a changeup in 6.5% of the pitches thrown him last season, but nobody should be this bad at hitting them. Since Anderson has had success in the past with the pitch, he needs to regain that form, but also needs to have another big improvement with against another pitch, the slider.

Anderson sees a slider at his second-highest rate (23.8%), about a quarter of his pitches seen. A big reason why Anderson was able to improve last season, albeit not as much as generally thought, was his improvement against the curveball. Anderson went from a 7 wRC+ to a 65 wRC+. That 65 was still well below average, but a significant improvement from ... 7. Anderson needs to execute that kind of improvement against the slider in 2019 if he wants to be a league-average hitter.

Of the more frequently used pitches against Anderson, he has hit by far the worst against the slider in each of his three seasons. Though there have been slight improvements over the years, there is usually no consistency from Anderson. For example, though Pitch Info has 2018 being Anderson’s best season against the slider (still horrendous, though), his whiff rate increased almost 4% to 42.7% and his contact rate fell about 1%. On the plus side, Anderson did hit more fly balls than ever against the pitch, and his average exit velocity did increase about 1 mph according to Baseball Savant. However, 2017 and 2018 both saw a 33 wRC+ against the slider for Anderson.

Anderson’s O-swing rate decreased about 2% last year, but that needs to continue to fall, as it was still near 50%. A huge reason why Anderson was able to vastly improve against the curveball was that his O-swing rate fell from 52.7% to 38.1%, and you can see the improvement below.

Anderson’s RAA/100 pitches per zone against the curveball, with 2017 on the left and 2018 on the right.

Now here is the RAA/100 pitches against the slider for Anderson in 2018:

Anderson’s RAA/100 pitches against the slider in 2018.

Now admittedly, it is easier said than done to just lay off changeups and sliders. However, especially against the changeup, Anderson needs to improve and become closer to serviceable. Anderson cannot swing against 67% of changes outside the zone, when 70% of the changes he sees are outside the zone. He also cannot swing at 49.9% of sliders outside the zone when 62% of sliders are outside the zone.

If Anderson can reduce his swings against those pitches, he can be scary with his speed-power combo. Worst case, Anderson remains the same player he has been: athletic, but not a hitter.