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The Curious Case of Yoán Moncada

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The third baseman’s 2021 production isn’t ideal, but in this White Sox lineup, he’s still a terrific fit

Chicago White Sox v Toronto Blue Jays
Yoán Moncada has celebrated more homers hit by others than his own this season, but his power outage has been somewhat offset by upping his walks/OBP.
Cole Burston/Getty Images

As I familiarize myself with this behemoth of a White Sox team (coming from covering the 2021 Mets, this has been an absolute treat, let me tell you ...), I’ve come across a few eyebrow-raising stat lines.

We addressed Lucas Giolito’s terrific second half last week, where we also came across a little gem regarding Dylan Cease’s elite fastball metrics. He’s a stud in the making, huh? And there’s plenty more to gush about, walking around the caverns of this pitching staff’s sky-high potential.

The offensive side of the chalk is also ripe with extremely encouraging developments, ready for picking. The White Sox have a perfect combination of young and veteran stars, role cogs, and support staff.

However, one hitter’s performance did stand out. Not for all the best reasons, but still with an eye turned toward his still-vaulted ceiling.

Yoán Moncada arrived in the major leagues to great fanfare in 2015, receiving a $31.5 million signing bonus from the Red Sox as a 20-year-old after uncharacteristically receiving clearance (as well as a visa and a passport) from the Cuban government, allowing him to travel to Central America, then to Florida, where he began his professional baseball journey.

Within months of making his MLB debut in September 2016, Moncada was traded to the White Sox in the Chris Sale deal, and that’s where things took off in earnest.

Success was fleeting for the switch-hitting infielder over his first few seasons in Chicago (.234/.321/.403, 25 home runs, 99 wRC+ over 203 games in 2017 and 2018), but the necessary adjustments were made, and the sky began to clear for the prodigious slugger.

While taking Moncada’s 2019 power numbers (25 home runs in 132 games) with a moderately-sized grain of salt considering the much-publicized changes in the physical properties of MLB’s baseball over that time, there’s really no discrediting the strides he made as a player during that span.

After leading the majors in strikeouts in 2018 (217; 33.4% strikeout rate), his strikeout rate dropped to a much more manageable 27.5% in 2019 to go along with a pristine .315/.367/.548, 140 wRC+ line.

In 2019, Moncada’s 47.9% hard-hit rate ranked 13th in MLB and his 40.4% sweet-spot was good for ninth. It doesn’t matter what the ball is made of, how it flies, or where it goes: When you’re hitting the balls harder and barreling them up more often than 99% of the league, you’re doing something right.

The good times were not to last, though. Moncada struggled mightily in 2020 (.225/.320/385, six homers, 96 wRC+ in 52 games), revealing in early September that his “body hadn’t felt the same after [having COVID in July],” adding it was “like a daily battle to find that strength, that energy to go through the day.”

For all of his struggles in 2020, Moncada’s penchant for tattooing fastballs wasn’t overly affected. After slashing .340/.417/.606 versus heaters in 2019, he kept that pace up admirably, with a .301/.401/.534 line and five of his six homers coming on 4-seamers.

Moncada’s production versus breaking stuff has increased noticeably, going from a .269/.303/.414 line against in 2019 to a .298/.386/.508 slash in 2021, though his numbers against off-speed pitches have taken a mirrored trajectory (1.018 OPS in 2019; .634 OPS in 2020).

As evidenced below (images, as well as stats referenced via Statcast), Moncada’s pitch recognition and course of action on both 4-seam fastballs and changeups have undergone massive overhauls, and it’s trickling into his in-zone production.

Below, you’ll see Moncada’s batting average heat maps versus 4-seams in 2019 and 2021, followed by the same charts reflecting his zone numbers against changeups.

Night and day in some cases. Puzzling, to say the least.

Whether this has been the result of the ongoing chain of adjustments that any and all major league hitters must make, or simply a marked shift in approach, is unknown to us, but the difference in Moncada’s offensive profile over the last two-plus seasons has been somewhat glaring.

Here are his Heart/Shadow zone metrics for 2019 and 2021, via Statcast. Again, the differences are stark. And a little more than relatively concerning.

One area of Moncada’s game that’s been on a tremendous uptick has been his walk rate. After logging a pedestrian (get it?) 7.2% during his breakout 2019 season, the 26-year-old increased that metric to 12.1% in 2020 and 13.9% so far in 2021, and his 2021 slash line has benefitted because of it (.376 on-base is .112 better than his .264 batting average).

Yes, Yoán minus the power and average of 2019 hasn’t truly been the same Yoán, but the hopeful end-product of his development — a .300 average, high-OBP, frozen rope factory with some pop — feels like it’s still well within reach.

Rediscovering that groove could make a big difference in determining how far the White Sox will advance this fall. As of late, it appears that groove is being carved and, boy, it’s a good one.

Following a painful .105/.171/.211 (6 wRC+) stretch over 10 games from July 26 through August 5 (41 plate appearances), Moncada has broken out to the tune of a .303/.398/.421 line with 131 wRC+ over his last 20 games.

A total of three extra-base hits over 88 plate appearances isn’t ideal. But with the supporting cast that’s been assembled around him, Yoán Moncada’s contributions most certainly fill a niche for this ballclub.