Complete teardowns are the new hip thing to do in professional baseball, with the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros winning the last two World Series after years of rebuilding the farm system through trades and high draft picks.
The Chicago White Sox seem to be one of the next teams in line to break out, with a number of prospects acquired via trade or the draft who are almost ready to contribute on the South Side. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez, acquired last season from the Cubs in the Jose Quintana trade, is the No. 4 overall prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. There is Lucas Giolito, a former No. 1 overall prospect, acquired in the Adam Eaton trade with Washington.
Seven White Sox prospects are littered across MLB.com’s Top-100 ranking this spring, but possibly the most-hyped prospect of all gave up his rookie status last year with the White Sox — Yoan Moncada.
Moncada, acquired from the Boston Red Sox along with No. 10 overall prospect Michael Kopech in the Chris Sale trade, was himself a former No. 1 overall prospect out of Cuba. However, his .231 average and .753 OPS last season leaves much to desire from the young second baseman.
Moncada made his White Sox debut on July 19 last year, and proceeded to slash .105/.261/.263 for the rest of the month. He was better in August, slashing .238/.368/.413 in 18 games, but he was downright good in the final month of the season, slashing .305/.374/.500 over his last 20 games with four home runs and 10 RBI.
His final month upped his season WAR total to 1.9, although he only played in one-third of the White Sox’s games.
What adjustments did Moncada make to his game during the second half of his season? For one, he started by hitting the fastball better, according to STATS TVL data, which tracks pitch type (T), velocity (V) and location (L). He didn’t register a single hit off four-seam fastballs in July, and only one on a two-seamer. He upped that total number to 11 in August, and in September/October, he collected 18 hits off four- and two-seam fastballs.
That success came partly because Moncada was seeing the fastball better later in the season. Moncada swung and missed at 33 percent of four-seamers from righties in July, but improved to 26 percent in August and 28 percent in September. After swinging and missing on 20 percent of two-seamers against righties, he didn’t swing and miss a single time in August or September. And after registering a 20 percent swing-and-miss rate against lefty four-seamers in July, it dropped to 8 percent in August, and he didn’t miss a single one in September.
It wasn’t just the swing-and-miss rate that improved for Moncada, though. A 55 percent groundball rate in July turned to 51 percent in August and 41 percent in September. That led to a higher hard-hit rate, which naturally leads to more extra-base hits, a higher slugging percentage, and more production overall.
Moncada had a 32 percent hard-hit rate in July, which is a respectable number (for reference, Francisco Lindor had a 33 percent hard-hit rate last year). But in August it bumped to 37 percent, and in September it moved to 38 percent. Overall, Moncada registered a 37 percent hard-hit rate last year, the same as Houston phenom Carlos Correa.
Obviously, Correa and Moncada are not the same hitter at this point in their careers. Correa hit 84 points better than Moncada last year, although their batting average on balls in play was only 27 points different. That boils down to how much Moncada struck out.
While the league-wide strikeout rate was just over 24 percent in 2017, Moncada struck out in 37 percent of his official at-bats. Just like with his swing-and-miss rate, though, he was trending in the right direction as the season got older. After striking out in 43 percent of his at-bats through the end of August, he lowered that number to 31 percent in September.
The combination of three things – making more contact, hitting the ball harder when he did make contact, and hitting the ball in the air more – led to a .818 OPS in September, which included five home runs and 11 RBI. Not-so-coincidentally, the White Sox had a 15-14 record the final month of the season after heading into September at 52-80.
If Moncada carries that production into his first full season with the White Sox, he’ll cement himself as a cornerstone of the franchise’s rebuild.