Yoán Moncada Is a Big Reason the White Sox Are a Juggernaut Despite Injuries

In 2017, my friend Marty and I made a bet. A lot of hot young prospects were making their way to the show and Marty is a big Red Sox fan. He was convinced that Andrew Benintendi was the next big thing, while I was adamant that honor belonged to a rookie the Red Sox had traded to the White Sox who hadn’t really gotten quite as good of a look yet: Yoán Moncada. The terms of the bet were simple. I had Moncada, he had Benintendi, and the best player would be determined by whichever player put up the most WAR (FanGraphs WAR, of course) over the next three seasons. The loser owed the winner dinner at the restaurant of their choice. Benintendi’s 5.9 WAR from 2018-20 is nothing to sneeze out, but Moncada’s 9.2 takes the cake. Which reminds me, Marty still owes me dinner.

If Marty had asked me to bet on who would win the AL Central this year, I would have put my dinner money on the White Sox. Chicago’s American League team is running away with a weak division, but they aren’t doing it the way I would have predicted. The big story on the South Side of Chicago is the injuries they’ve weathered on their way to a 54-35 record. Hitting phenom Eloy Jiménez tore a pectoral muscle trying to rob a home run in spring training, and hasn’t seen a major league pitch in 2021, though he hit a home run in the first at-bat of his rehab assignment before moving to Triple-A on Tuesday. Luis Robert played all of 25 games before he tore a hip flexor. Contact stalwart Nick Madrigal had season-ending surgery after a severe hamstring tear a month ago. As the clock ticked towards the Midsummer Classic, catcher Yasmani Grandal (who was having quite a strange season at the plate) had surgery on a torn tendon in his knee. Fortunately, that injury is not expected to be season-ending.

Grandal is not the only player on the White Sox having a bit of an odd year. Moncada is putting together a sneakily good bounce back season even with a career low .118 ISO. Despite the power outage, he’s building on his breakout campaign from 2019, where he put up a .315/.367/.548 triple slashline. That season also saw Moncada put up a 140 wRC+ and a .379 wOBA on his way to 5.6 WAR in 559 plate appearances. That was good for the ninth-highest WAR among position players in the AL. After a disappointing 2020 that saw those numbers decline considerably to a wRC+ of 96 and a wOBA of .309 (he also dealt with the lingering effects of COVID-19), Moncada appears to be back on the right track. Through 334 plate appearances in 2021. he’s slashing .272/.401/.390 with a 126 wRC+ and a wOBA of .357. He is also the White Sox’s position player leader in WAR with 73 games left to play:

White Sox Position Players with >= 1 WAR in 2021
Player PA wRC+ wOBA WAR
Yoán Moncada 334 129 .357 2.8
Tim Anderson 330 114 .335 2.4
Yasmani Grandal 215 134 .365 1.9
Nick Madrigal 215 115 .337 1.4
José Abreu 356 117 .339 1.2
Leury García 270 96 .308 1.2
Luis Robert 103 127 .355 1.0

The question I found myself asking is just how Moncada has maintained his run production while suffering a power outage? To find out, I dug into Moncada’s approach at the plate. First, he has improved his contact against breaking and offspeed pitches considerably compared to 2020, although it’s worth nothing that step forward seems to have come at the expense of the quality contact he had made against fastballs in the past. His power numbers are down relative to his career highs with the exception of breaking balls. Below you can see Moncada’s batting average and slugging against fastballs, breaking balls and offspeed pitches since 2019 according to Statcast data:

Moncada Results by Pitch Type & Year
Year Pitch Type BBE Avg Slg
2019 Fastballs 194 .340 .606
2019 Breaking 85 .269 .414
2019 Offspeed 80 .330 .612
2020 Fastballs 76 .301 .534
2020 Breaking 32 .164 .279
2020 Offspeed 22 .111 .139
2021 Fastballs 94 .242 .288
2021 Breaking 61 .337 .581
2021 Offspeed 35 .245 .340
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

2019 was an outlier for a lot of players in terms of power so it isn’t surprising Moncada’s thump is down relative to the season he slugged 25 home runs. That flash of elite power was likely an anomaly that can probably be chalked up to the home run environment. But Moncada isn’t usually a below average power bat, either. His career ISO is a respectable .177 in 2,025 major league plate appearances, considerably better than what he’s shown in 2021. In fact, a look at his exit velocity and barrel rates from 2018 to now indicates something else is going on:

Yoán Moncada Statcast Data 2018-21
Year BBE Max EV Avg EV Barrel %
2018 365 113.1 91.0 9.60%
2019 361 115.8 93.1 12.20%
2020 130 109.9 87.8 6.20%
2021 190 111.3 90.0 8.40%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

James Fegan at The Athletic has reported that Moncada is playing through “nagging soreness” this season. If some of the team’s stronger hitters were healthy, he may have taken time off by now, but the White Sox haven’t had that luxury this year. Whether it’s due to injury, league-wide effects like the new ball, or some combination of both, Moncada has adapted to his lower power output quickly. While most of the league has seen its strikeout rate increase, Moncada’s has fallen to a career low (more on that in a second). More importantly, while his 128 wRC+ and .357 wOBA are off the pace of his career-best 2019 numbers, they still represent a strong second-best season in the majors. He’s also steadily improved his walk rate since 2019. The result is a 2021 OBP of .401, good for third in the AL among qualified batters:

AL OBP Leaders – Qualified Hitters
Player PA OBP
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 374 .430
Joey Gallo 351 .402
Yoán Moncada 334 .401
Carlos Correa 358 .385
Xander Bogaerts 361 .385
Nelson Cruz 318 .381
Cedric Mullins II 380 .380
Yuli Gurriel 355 .377
Mark Canha 325 .375
Aaron Judge 360 .375
Yandy Díaz 323 .375

If Moncada is dealing with “nagging soreness” as Fegan noted, it could at least partially explain the power outage and new struggles against fastballs. But it seems like the key reason Moncada’s overall offensive output hasn’t collapsed is improved selectivity at the plate. His chase rate is at a career low, but before celebrating that feat, we need to dig a little deeper. Ben Clemens noted in January that Moncada has historically been at his worst when he’s overly passive. Specifically, Moncada swung at more pitches in the zone in 2019 than he did in 2020, particularly with two strikes.

So, how is Moncada putting up the second best season of his career while being even more selective? Well it appears Moncada took at least some of Ben’s advice from January, because he’s not watching strike three pass him by in the zone anymore.

Below is Moncada’s 2020 heat map showing his swing percentage in two-strike counts:

In 2020, Moncada swung at pitches in the heart of the zone 87% of the time. He swung at pitches in the zone 50-94% of the time depending on their location. Now let’s look at 2021:

What a difference a season makes. Now Moncada is swinging at two-strike pitches in the heart of the zone 100% of the time. He still doesn’t love the low inside corner of the zone, and only swings at 59% of the pitches there after two strikes, but even that is an improvement. Most importantly, almost every part of the zone has seen an increased swing rate with two strikes. That change in approach is likely one of the reasons behind Moncada’s improved productivity relative to his 2020 campaign. He’s not feasting on fastballs for power this season and he’s still highly selective about when he swings, but he’s doing enough damage to be productive for the White Sox simply by swinging at more strikes.

The home runs and elite exit velocity may not come back before Moncada can rest whatever is ailing him, but he’s done an exceptional job of adjusting his approach to work around that in the meantime. In doing so, he’s improved considerably over his 2020 campaign — his line drive percentage is a career best 30.5%.

Moncada Plate Discipline and Batted Ball 2019-21
Year O-Swing% HR/FB% LD%
2019 32.7% 20.2% 23.1%
2020 29.0% 12.5% 22.5%
2021 24.6% 9.4% 30.5%
SOURCE: Baseball Info Solutions

Admittedly, absent injuries, some of Chicago’s better known stars may have surpassed Moncada this season. However, the White Sox haven’t had that luxury. What they have had is Yoán Moncada. The pandemic-shortened season interrupted a lot of players who had just come into their own. Witnessing what Moncada could have done in a full, healthy 25-year-old season after his breakout in 2019 is high on the list of things I wish fans had been able to see. But even with that lull, Moncada has arrived. The adjustments he’s made this season would be impressive even if the rest of the White Sox line up was healthy. Leading the injury riddled White Sox to the top of the AL Central in the first half is remarkable, and proof his breakout that began in 2019 has rebounded in a big way in 2021.

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2 years ago

With most guys, by now you’d know what kind of hitter they are. But I feel like Moncada is still developing as a hitter. He came up very passive, but made it barely work. Then he became much more aggressive and really made that work well. Now he is becoming more selectively aggressive, and seems to be sacrificing power for contact some, and he’s making that work almost as well.

Mix in 2020 and pitchers adjusting to his change in approach and it is hard to nail down when he is going to be a fully mature offensive player and what that will look like. If he’s lucky the next step will be that he becomes good enough and comfortable enough with the selectively aggressive approach to get back some of the power he had in 2019 and if he does that he’s going to be really, really good.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

Sounds like Bogaerts’ early career. Now he’s a stud…