F/F SPOTLIGHT: Yoan Moncada

When a top prospect doesn’t turn his pedigree into results after a year or two, there is a natural inclination to move on. Or at least be pessimistic. Hope can turn into disappointment quickly.

Such is the case with Yoan Moncada (3B/2B, CHW), a former top prospect who hasn’t posted anything better than a .750 OPS during his career.

But Moncada’s early returns in 2019 are better than anything we’ve seen from him in the majors before. He’s flirting with a .300 batting average. He’s on pace to break 20 HR for the first time in his career.

Let’s put Moncada under our Facts & Flukes Spotlight to see what—if anything—has changed in Moncada’s toolbox. That exercise will help us determine if his early success is sustainable.


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Background

Moncada left Cuba in 2014 and signed with the Red Sox in February 2015. He made his professional debut at Low-A Greenville later that season.

His multi-faceted tools were immediately on full display:

Minor League History

Year  Age  Level     AB   BA    HR  RBI  OPS   SB  Eye
====  ===  ========  ===  ====  ==  ===  ====  ==  ====
2015   20  Low-A     306  .278   8   38  .817  49  0.51
-------------------------------------------------------
2016   21  High-A    228  .307   4   34  .923  36  0.75
2016   21  Double-A  177  .277  11   28  .910   9  0.42
-------------------------------------------------------
2017   22  Triple-A  309  .282  12   36  .823  17  0.48
-------------------------------------------------------

Moncada checked in as a top-5 prospect after both the 2015 and 2016 seasons. We rated him a 9B prospect in late 2016.

Moncada made his major-league debut with BOS at age 21 in 2016 after accumulating just 177 AB at Double-A. He struck out 12 times in 19 AB, then was traded to CHW in the Chris Sale (LHP, BOS) deal. He got an extended taste of the high-minors in Triple-A in 2017. Still, it’s fair to say that Moncada was rushed to the big leagues.

Pre-2019 MLB Stats and Skills

Moncada had an ADP in the 150s during 2019 drafts, a reflection of both his upside as a former top prospect as well as the pessimism that comes with consecutive years of underperformance.

Indeed, Moncada generated only $13 in 5x5 leagues during his first full season in 2018, even though he produced decent power (17 HR) and speed (12 SB). Blame a .235 BA for his so-so fantasy return. And it wasn't the product of a fluky hit rate, as his 35% h% actually was higher than what he showed in 2017 (32% h%).  The primary reason for his struggles was a continued lack of contact:

Year  ct%  xBA
====  ===  ====
2017  63%  .223
2018  62%  .213

In 2018, Moncada really struggled to make contact on pitches outside of the strike zone, and even his contact rate on pitches in the heart of the strike zone left room for improvement (heat maps courtesy of FanGraphs.com):

Converting his shaky contact skills into his batting average output reveals that he had many more cold BA zones than hot (Hot Zones courtesy of ESPN.com):

In addition, the balls in play that resulted in hits for the switch-hitting Moncada in 2018 mostly landed in right field (spray charts provided by baseballsavant.mlb.com):

While Moncada didn’t end the 2018 season with a flourish and these warts prevented us from forecasting a breakout this season, some modest growth in his plate discipline late in 2018 gave us more reason for optimism heading into 2019:

Period   bb%  ct%  Eye
=======  ===  ===  ====
2018 1H   9%  61%  0.24
2018 2H  12%  64%  0.39

Since it's clear that a high rate of strikeouts has stalled Moncada’s development, even marginal gains there were worth noting.

Those holes in his swing were hiding consistently above-average power and speed skills.

2019 MLB Stats and Skills

Through the first five weeks or so of the season, Moncada has turned his modest production into results:

Year  AB   BA    OPS
====  ===  ====  ====
2017  199  .231  .750
2018  578  .235  .714
2019  133  .293  .876

The key for Moncada's quest for consistency can be found in his contact rate, which we've shown has struggled to reach even an acceptable level. At least until this season.

Contact Rate

Year  ct%
====  ===
2017  63%
2018  62%
2019  73%

When trying to determine if gains in contact rate can stick, there are a couple of additional metrics we can use.

One is O-Swing%, the percentage of pitches a batter swings at that are outside the strike zone:

Year  O-Swing%
====  ========
2017     26.8%
2018     23.3%
2019     27.6%

Moncada is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone that we’ve seen from him before. Normally, that would be an ominous sign. But it turns out that he’s making a lot more contact on those pitches than he did in 2018:

Year  O-Contact %
====  ===========
2017        58.1%
2018        49.9%
2019        57.7%

Another method of analyzing a hitter’s plate metrics is to look at the percentage of pitches he swings at inside the strike zone, called Z-Swing%:

Year  Z-Swing%
====  ========
2017     63.9%
2018     63.9%
2019     66.9%

Moncada is doing a better job of identifying pitches within the strike zone. Is he making more contact against them? Yes, and it’s been a multi-year climb:

Year  Z-Contact %
====  ===========
2017        77.5%
2018        79.8%
2019        84.7%

Finally, we can also look at a hitter’s swinging strike rate to analyze the foundation of his contact rate, just like we can do with a pitcher’s ability to generate strikeouts.

Moncada is heading in the right direction there:

Year  SwK%
====  =====
2017  12.6%
2018  12.2%
2019  11.0%

Let's take a visual look at Moncada's contact improvements. His contact heat map so far in 2019 shows a lot more pink and a lot less blue than it did last season, which confirms that he's making a lot more contact on pitches outside of the strike zone as well as making more contact on pitches over the heart of the plate:

Those gains have given him many more hot zones in 2019:

Moncada also is doing a better job of using the whole field, a reflection of his improved approach against lefties (.265 BA vL in '19):

In summary:

  • Moncada is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, but he’s making much better contact on those pitches
  • He’s swinging at significantly more pitches inside the strike zone, and making a lot more contact on those pitches too
  • His heat maps and hot zones reflect those adjustments
  • His swinging strike rate is in the midst of a multi-year reduction
  • In total, there is good reason to believe that Moncada’s gains in contact rate can stick

In fact, he has managed a 70%+ ct% against both lefties and righties after never reaching that level against either-sided pitcher.

Moncada’s increased contact rate gives much better support to his near-.300 BA. Check out his xBA trend:

Year  xBA
====  ====
2017  .223
2018  .213
2019  .271

Power

Moncada consistently has shown good power skills over his career, but they haven’t reached the levels suggested by his scouting reports. But they are continuing to inch in the right direction:

Year  PX   xPX
====  ===  ===
2017  121  112
2018  123  113
2019  135  116

A batter’s home run per flyball rate (HR/F) can also impact his power output. When big swings in HR/F are not accompanied by supporting changes in his flyball distance, there is reason to be pessimistic. While Moncada's average batted ball distance has dipped in 2019, his average flyball distance is on a steady upward trajectory:

Year  HR/F  Flyball Distance
====  ====  ================
2017   18%        314 ft
2018   12%        321 ft
2019   21%        351 ft

This means that we can't dismiss Moncada's jump in flyballs leaving the park as a fluke that's likely to regress.

Furthermore, Moncada has shown an improved ability to barrel the ball so far in 2019. Only 12 bats have barreled more balls than Moncada (data courtesy of MLB Statcast):

Likewise, Moncada rate of hard-hit balls as measured by exit velocity can validate a hitter’s power.

Moncada’s early exit velocity also is some of the best in the game:

In summary:

  • While Moncada’s current HR/F isn’t supported by his flyball distance, his power skills and home park give him the right recipe for power
  • Further gains in his power skills are supported by his upper-tier barrel rate and exit velocity

Speed

A glance at Moncada's stolen base output in the minors (36 SB in 228 AB at High-A in 2016) shows that he has the raw speed to be a true multi-category producer at his peak.

Moncada's speed skills suggest that he carries the potential for double-digit steals, but it's no longer reasonable to expect anything close to the production he showed on the basepaths in the minors:

Year  Spd
====  ===
2017  133  
2018  128
2019  111

MLB Statcast provides a Sprint Speed metric that aims to measure a player's foot speed. Moncada is trending in the wrong direction there too, which confirms that his speed skills might be tapped out:

Year  Sprint Speed Rank
====  =================
2017          57th
2018          71st
2019         107th

Conclusions

There’s a lot to like about Moncada’s quick start to the season:

  • The gains in his contact rate come with some pretty strong underlying support. If those hold, he’ll be able to sustain a lot of the batting average gains he has shown.
  • The ingredients for more power are there. He’s posting barrel rates and exit velocities that support further growth, and his average flyball distance keeps going up.
  • After posting an overall BPV of 15 and 9 during his first two seasons in the majors, he’s carrying a 50 BPV now. That’s a reflection of the overall gains he has made in 2019.
  • While Moncada's BA growth and HR potential are for real, it's hard to see him developing into a 20+ SB producer due to his declining foot speed, even if his improved contact will give him more stolen base opportunities.

Moncada's early-career inconsistency likely was fueled by the fact that he was promoted to the majors before he was ready. At age 24, the window to buy low on this post-hype version of Moncada is closing quickly.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.