The Greatest Hope in Kansas City

Between 2016 and 2017, the worst hitter in the major leagues was Adalberto Mondesi. Yes, Mondesi was young. Yes, this requires you set a plate-appearance minimum of 200. Yes, it’s tight, and within a certain margin of error. But over the two years, Mondesi posted a big-league wRC+ of 29. Luke Maile wound up at 30. Adam Engel wound up at 38. Whenever you examine the extremes of any leaderboard, it’s important to understand that luck almost always plays some kind of role, but Mondesi was responsible for the very worst results. He didn’t make it any easier for the team to move on from Alcides Escobar.

Now, chances are, for many of you, you haven’t paid attention to the Royals for a while. By and large, they’ve been a terrible baseball team in a terrible baseball division. And easily the weirdest thing happening right now for the Royals is Ryan O’Hearn, who’s sitting on a 167 wRC+ after having slugged just .391 in Triple-A. O’Hearn is deserving of his own examination, but as the Royals have drifted ever further from any relevance, Adalberto Mondesi has stepped it up. Used to be, he was a good prospect with bad results. These days, he’s putting it together, with a power and speed package the Royals hope to build around when they’re once again ready to compete.

The straight-up numbers: Mondesi recently turned 23 years old, and he has a wRC+ of 112. He’s stolen 26 bases, including 21 in just the second half. The risk couldn’t really be clearer. Despite the above-average batting line, Mondesi has just eight walks, to go with 71 strikeouts. His approach could stand to be a great deal more polished. But Mondesi has already improved, and there are observable hints there’s room left to grow.

Mondesi’s game is maybe best conveyed by video. Take a look at him hitting a bomb:

Take a look at him hitting another one:

Here’s Mondesi, legging out a triple:

And here’s Mondesi, making a good play against an admittedly hobbled batter:

For a long time, Mondesi was a player whose tools were ahead of his results. And for any such player, it would be easy to put together a selective and misleading highlight reel. Every home run looks good, after all. You can just not include clips of bad swings at good pitches. The tools are still there, with results beginning to show up. I’ll try to give you a sense of what Mondesi brings to the table, with the help of Baseball Savant. On the x-axis here, you see expected wOBA on batted balls. On the y-axis, you see average sprint speed. This is all for just 2018, and Mondesi is the point in yellow.

Some people might use exit velocity instead of xwOBA on contact, since it’s a truer reflection of bat speed, but the point isn’t just to hit the ball as hard as possible — the point is to hit the ball such that you reach base. Better to hit the ball 105 in the air than 115 on a line. Anyway, in terms of sprint speed this season, Mondesi ranks in the 98th percentile. He’s clearly one of the fastest runners in either league. And then, in terms of xwOBA on contact, Mondesi ranks in the 79th percentile. The dots up there to his right are Ronald Acuna and Trevor Story. Mondesi is very, very fast, and he’s also capable of hitting the ball hard. That establishes a potential star-player foundation.

What’s missing, of course, is the discipline component. It doesn’t do a player much good to be fast and strong if he swings at every single pitch. But Mondesi has been working to improve both his swing and his selectivity. He’s a switch-hitter, but for simplicity, let’s just glance at some screenshots of him batting left-handed. Here’s late-season Mondesi from 2017, and late-season Mondesi from 2018:

No longer does Mondesi close himself off so much. In theory, at least, he can see the ball better, and this makes it easier for him to turn on a pitch and drive it hard to the pull side. There’s also how Mondesi is gripping the bat itself:

Mondesi doesn’t rest the bat on his shoulder anymore. Of probably greater significance, Mondesi is now also choking up a little bit. It’s not something he’s only doing in two-strike counts. Choking up might not work for everyone, but it allows for greater bat control, and it also just makes the swing a little quicker. By hastening the swing, Mondesi gets more time to make a decision. Every pitch gets an extra split-second.

It’s easy to post photos and observe what looks different. If there’s nothing encouraging about the actual performance, then it doesn’t mean very much. Some guys do better choking up. Some guys don’t. Some guys do better with a more open stance. Some guys don’t. Here’s real evidence of Mondesi moving forward. These are rolling averages of his swing rates at pitches in and out of the zone:

Here’s some of the same information, in table form:

Adalberto Mondesi
Split O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Exit Velo Launch Angle
2016 44% 63% 67% 81 4
2017 41% 62% 63% 81 4
2018, pre-ASB 45% 76% 68% 89 13
2018, post-ASB 35% 72% 68% 87 11

As Mondesi reached the majors again this season, he was hitting the ball with far greater authority. He also became considerably more aggressive swinging at would-be strikes. As Mondesi has received more regular playing time down the stretch, he’s maintained his batted-ball authority, and he’s maintained much of his in-zone aggressiveness, but you also see a sharp downturn in chases. Mondesi has still been going out of the zone more often than average, but of late, his numbers look a lot more reasonable. He’s not just a hacker. He’s not just a talented hitter who doesn’t have any idea. He’ll never be confused for Joey Votto, but Mondesi is swinging both better and smarter. It’s giving the Royals something positive at the end of what’s been a miserable disappointment.

There remains plenty to prove, and that’ll be up to Mondesi in 2019. It’s not yet clear exactly what kind of career he’s going to have. Historically, it’s been hard for players to be sustainably good hitters with these rates of walks and strikeouts. Yet Mondesi’s approach has taken steps forward, which is meaningful, and this is a quality defensive shortstop who’s also played some second base. He’s shown himself to be one of the league’s more exciting and dangerous runners, and the clips up above show that he can drill a no-doubter. Maybe Adalberto Mondesi is turning into the Royals’ version of Tim Anderson. Or maybe he’s turning into the Royals’ version of Javier Baez. Baez himself has to prove he can do this again, but as far as 2018 is concerned, he’s a viable candidate for the NL MVP. Mondesi’s allowing observers to dream.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

okay but who the heck is the plot point with the nearly .600 xWOBA on contact? holy shit
(i’ve been hand-checking players for like 20 minutes and still no dice)

5 years ago
Reply to  olivepile

never mind, it’s joey gallo. aka one of my favourite players on my favourite team.

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago
Reply to  olivepile

And who’s the poor sod in the bottom left?

I would be such a sucker for if they were clickable.

5 years ago
Reply to  Jetsy Extrano

That would be Rays catcher Jesus Sucre (.287 xWOBACON, 22.9 ft/s).

5 years ago
Reply to  olivepile

I read that last part as ff/s and was thinking you abbreviated for fuck sake. Which I guess would of worked as well.

5 years ago
Reply to  carter

lol glad it wasn’t just me