Yoán Moncada Still Doesn’t Swing Enough

The White Sox were one of the most exciting teams in baseball last year; a youthful, exuberant squad that broke up the Minnesota/Cleveland hegemony in the AL Central with a solid pitching staff and an unending barrage of crushed, smoked, and blistered baseballs. They led the league in position player WAR, and it was a team effort — seven different Chicago players had more than 100 plate appearances and an above-average batting line.

Notably absent from that group: Yoán Moncada, the one-time top prospect in baseball. He still put together a solid season — he hit .225/.320/.385, good for a 96 wRC+, and played stellar defense at third base — but after his breakout in 2019, 2020 can only be viewed as a disappointment.

I’ve got good news for people who are hoping Moncada turns things around: I know one of the main contributors to the problem (well, two, actually, but we’ll cover the second at the end of the article). I also have bad news for people who are hoping Moncada turns things around: it’s the same problem as always, and one that I hoped he had put in the past. Moncada simply doesn’t swing enough.

If this doesn’t sound like a common problem to you, well, yeah, it’s not. We as fans (and analysts) want batters to have a “good eye,” to avoid swings at devastating secondary pitches that they can’t do anything with. That’s the downfall of many a prospect, but Moncada has never had that problem.

Every year of his big league career, Moncada has chased fewer pitches than league average. This isn’t some trick of the count, either. Most batters chase more frequently when they’re behind in the count. Moncada chases less:

Chase Rates, 2017-2020
Count Moncada League
Even Count 21.2% 24.1%
Hitter’s Count 28.4% 27.9%
Pitcher’s Count 26.1% 32.9%

With all the flatly absurd breaking pitches being deployed in baseball these days, that’s a valuable skill. Maybe you can get Moncada to go fishing, but you’re going to need a good pitch to make him chase. He’s not quite a pitch selection god — that pantheon features Joey Votto at 19.3%, Mike Trout at 17.5%, and Juan Soto at 20% — but he’s among the lowest 20% in hitter chase rate, forcing pitchers to face him in the strike zone.

Yeah, uh, about that. Let’s look at Moncada’s surrender rate relative to the league in each of those three cases. What’s surrender rate? It’s a term I just made up for takes on pitches over the heart of the plate. We aren’t talking borderline strikes that might make sense to take; these are cookies:

Surrender Rates, 2017-2020
Count Moncada League
Even Count 41.4% 35.9%
Hitter’s Count 24.3% 24.1%
Pitcher’s Count 17.2% 12.6%

In hitter’s counts, Moncada behaves unremarkably. When he’s behind, though, he seems to freeze up. Everyone takes some pitches, but Moncada is extreme; he’s so intent on not swinging at bad pitches — which he does very well! — that he lets hittable pitches go by for called strikes. That selectiveness outside the strike zone appears to come at great cost.

These are his career stats, which means that this isn’t a new thing. In 2018, he ran a gruesome 33.4% strikeout rate. Despite his many other positive qualities — he hit the snot out of the ball when he did swing and maintained a healthy walk rate — all those taken strikes and strikeouts held him back.

In 2019, Moncada got aggressive and broke out. Frequent Moncada chronicler Craig Edwards (and frequent interesting-things writer Mike Petriello) broke it down best, but essentially he started swinging a lot more and prospered.

To appreciate how much this aggression helped Moncada, it’s time to consider another nonsense stat: called strikeout rate. In 2018, 10.8% of the two-strike pitches that Moncada saw ended with him taking a called strike three. That was the highest rate in the game by a huge margin, as far ahead of second-place Ian Happ as Happ was ahead of 28th-place Mike Trout.

In 2019, Moncada fixed it! He cut his called strikeout rate to 5.5% (the league checks in at 4.4% overall), and without those called strikeouts, his game blossomed. As I mentioned before, he hits the snot out of the ball when he does swing (10.8% barrel rate, 47.9% hard-hit rate), and he used that hellacious power to hit .315/.367/.548, good for a 140 wRC+. He was, in other words, one of the best hitters in baseball, only a year after he was below average.

What went wrong in 2020? That darn passivity crept back in. Let’s look at it through the lens of two-strike surrender rate. Moncada had given up too easily in 2018, and it started to happen again in 2020:

Surrender Rate by Year
Year Surrender Rate
2017 13.0%
2018 12.9%
2019 8.9%
2020 14.1%

This is a lot of tables and strange terms, but look, this is bad:

So is this:

And this:

You get the idea. When Moncada got a gift — and make no mistake, pitches over the heart of the plate with two strikes are a gift — he squandered it. Hitters are really bad after they reach two-strike counts. In 2020, they produced a .232 wOBA when hitting with two strikes, the same wOBA that Gregory Polanco produced with a .153/.214/.325 line. That is, as the kids say these days, a big oof.

When pitchers goofed up and threw the ball over the heart of the plate, batters did better, to the tune of a .277 wOBA. When they swung, that climbed to .307. These aren’t great numbers, but they’re better than being Gregory Polanco. Sorry, Gregory!

Moncada is a lot better than the average hitter when he swings. When he swung at a pitch over the heart of the plate with two strikes, he produced a .425 wOBA in a tiny sample. That’s well above average, and it makes sense; as we’ve already covered, he smashes the ball. By giving away those free called strikes, though, he’s eroding one of the best things he has going, turning a pitcher’s mistake into a free out.

There was one other red flag in Moncada’s 2020, but it’s one I’m inclined to ignore. His power on contact dipped from his previous track record. His barrel rate nearly halved, his hard hit rate fell 14.8 percentage points, and he didn’t record a single batted ball with an exit velocity over 110 mph, a year after he had 17 of them.

That sounds a lot worse than the strike zone stuff, but there’s a notable extenuating circumstance. Moncada contracted COVID-19 in the run-up to the regular season, and he spoke extensively about his struggle with the disease, which frequently left him feeling drained and weak. As it happens, feeling drained and weak is not the optimal way to play baseball, and it showed in Moncada’s performance.

With an offseason to recover, that’ll hopefully be less of an issue; he’s already indicated his body feels stronger than it did. It’s also possible, of course, that Moncada’s struggles with COVID played into his passivity at the plate — if you aren’t hitting the ball the way you’re used to, it’s tempting to fall back on old habits and get complacent. That’s not quite as clear of a connection, however, and unlike his sudden power outage, this is a weakness Moncada has shown before.

Drawing conclusions based on a strange and abbreviated 2020 is always a tenuous exercise. Doing so for a hitter who spent the year recovering from illness is even harder. In Moncada’s case, however, his previous history should be a warning. If he wants to return to his spectacular 2019 form, he’ll need to swing more frequently and stop giving pitchers a part of the plate that they certainly don’t deserve.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

Moncada makes me think if Tony Phillips was faster and stronger, but misses more when he swings. Phillips, like Moncada, was a super (possibly overly) patient switch hitter.

3 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

Yup, but Moncada has the power he needs to break out (again). Being overly patient would suit someone with Tony Phillip’s game better. If Moncada can maintain good selectiveness while punishing meatballs, 2019 is attainable as a baseline I think.

3 years ago
Reply to  darkness88

Absolutely- if he moved to second in addition to his power, he’d have fantasy owners drooling to draft him