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Even as they’ve crept closer together in recent years, there are still discrepancies that pop up now and then between the many worlds of baseball players, analysts and fans. It usually has to do with perspective. The player on the field sees things that nobody in the crowd can pick up on, and an analyst can find macrotrends that might contradict what any individual sees in front of them. Fans pick and choose from this baseball toolbox to form their own opinions. Sometimes one school of thought is favored over another, but each perspective typically has something valuable to add to the conversation.
One conversation we’ve seen bouncing around lately is about Yoan Moncada. It’s not that he doesn’t get plenty of love, but there’s a narrative in some corners of the baseball commentariat that, based on a few different metrics, he was abnormally lucky in 2019, and we should therefore expect him to get bitten by the regression monster this season. In short, he’s good, but don’t get your hopes up for another 5 WAR season.
We’ve been having this conversation for some time, and as we wrapped up our initial draft for this article recently, Devan Fink presented the case against Moncada, neatly summarizing the opposite side of our debate. While Devan is undoubtedly an outstanding writer and many of the points made against Moncada are certainly valid, we strongly felt they shouldn’t be enough to damper optimism regarding his future production. In the process of finding out why, we figured out a few things not just about Moncada, but about what we think should go into good and sound baseball analysis.
Ground Ball Magic: Lucky or Skilled?
The first thing Fink and much of the community notes is that Moncada’s league-leading .406 BABIP was historically high. A fair point; it was just the 5th time since World War II anybody has broken the .400 mark. Of course, good analysis has moved past putting too much stock into BABIP alone. Batting average in any form only has so much value. Besides, we know Moncada naturally runs a higher BABIP than most, sitting at over .370 for his professional career. We need to know where that high BABIP comes from, and whether it’s sustainable moving forward.
As it turns out, a league-best BABIP was driven by a league-best .382/.382/.421 line and 118+ wRC on ground balls. That he hits those ground balls extremely hard (91.2 MPH average exit velocity, 6th in the big leagues (and a tenth of a MPH behind… David Freese?) is irrelevant because offensive output on ground balls is typically so low. Is the regression monster looming over this production enough to cast some doubt over whether his 2019 results have staying power?
We don’t think so. Frankly, the ground balls don’t really matter that much, but we’ll get to that soon. It helps knowing that while his numbers were certainly extraordinary, they’re less shocking with the context that Moncada’s career .347 AVG and 99 wRC+ on ground balls is also handily the best in baseball in that timespan. It seems unlikely that he’s blindly lucked into the best ground ball batting line in baseball over the three-plus seasons; it’s reasonable to think there’s some outlier ability behind his outlier stats. In this case, Moncada’s ground ball output seems to be driven in some part by a preternatural ability to beat the shift. Seventy-seven players since the beginning of 2017 have put at least 100 ground balls in play with a shifted infield. Moncada’s .402 batting average in that span blows the rest of the league out of the water:
Nobody can outrun a 67-point gulf in xwOBA forever, for the record. Some regression is inevitable. But there’s plenty of indication that luck isn’t all responsible for Moncada’s ground ball prowess. In that sample, Moncada pulls the ball at the 10th lowest rate (43.3%) while also hitting it the 4th hardest (88.5 MPH). As his lefty pull percentage (he’s shifted almost exclusively from the left side) has gone from above average to below average since his rookie season, he’s reaping the benefits of being able to consistently hit the ball hard to all fields. The outcomes may still be “lucky,” but the process behind them sure isn’t.
Contact Quality and How To Read Expected Stats
Even if he is legitimately one of the best players in the league at turning ground balls into hits, he’s still not going to set records with his BABIP again. But we think it’s clear he doesn’t need to set BABIP records to maintain his status as an elite player. The skepticism Moncada’s outlier ground ball production inspires should correlate with how much of an effect that extra luck had on his overall offensive output. The thing is, we already have metrics that can answer that question! In theory, xwOBA should tell us most of what we need to know. It accounts for shifts, batted ball profile, plate discipline, all that jazz. For us, Moncada’s 81st percentile xwOBA means that painting him as abnormally lucky requires stronger evidence than sketchy plate discipline and a few grounders finding holes.
Expected wOBA on contact (xwOBAcon) paints him in an even more flattering light. If you’re concerned by the prospect of his luck on grounders (and fly balls above 36 degrees, as Fink notes) evaporating, xwOBAcon ought to be reassuring. It’s the guts of wOBA, assigning an “expected” value to each ball in play based on its exit velocity, launch angle, and the batter’s speed, derived from the outcomes of previous balls in play with similar metrics. This means if Moncada’s rate of success was artificially inflated by an unsustainably high number of lucky hits, xwOBAcon will account for it. Lo and behold, the xwOBAcon leaderboard for the 2019 season:
First of all, Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout. Sheesh. Anyway, there are a few enigmas, but that’s mostly great company! This tells us that even when we strip away what actually happened after the ball was hit, Moncada was unquestionably elite at giving himself a chance at a successful outcome. Sure, he got a little lucky. But if you’re looking for what drives a 141 wRC+, having the best overall contact quality of any third baseman in baseball by a significant margin is a better explanation than ground ball and popup luck.
Think of it this way: In 2019, 52 of Moncada’s 56 ground ball hits were singles. Let’s be crude and arbitrarily take away 10 of those “lucky” singles. What happens? His wOBA drops all the way from .380 to .364, a hair above his actual .362 xwOBA. With or without an outlier average on ground balls, he was an excellent hitter. Expected statistics have already accounted for the ways in which Moncada was lucky, and they don’t care. The difference between having MLB’s 25th best wOBA and its 40th should not prompt one to ask whether the guy is actually good.
Is Plate Discipline A Problem?
All that being said, concerns about Moncada’s strikeout and walk rates are valid, as are Fink’s observations about low-BB/high-K players being somewhat more dependent on batted ball luck. It tracks logically. Once again, however, we think that these concerns are overblown.
A 27.5% strikeout rate and 7.2% walk rate are far from ideal, and most hitters with those peripherals are precluded from being elite simply because it’s difficult to hit the ball well frequently enough to make up for being that much more at the mercy of batted ball luck. A 20% K/BB disparity should give any analyst pause. But there are exceptions, and we already know Moncada’s quality of contact is exceptional. Let’s go back to that xwOBAcon leaderboard and see where his strikeout and walk numbers fit in:
Even those optimistic about Moncada can see the cause for concern. He walks less and strikes out more than most players who make similar contact. One would naturally question the sustainability of any positive output with that profile.
There’s less compelling evidence than that refuting the importance of his grounders, but we think that a 27.5% strikeout rate isn’t quite as scary as it appears. It’s high, but it’s not so much higher than others who hit the ball with similar authority that anybody needs to write a think piece about it. The gaps aren’t chasmic, and Jorge Soler, Ronald Acuña Jr., Bryce Harper, Pete Alonso and Eugenio Suarez all made it work with K-rates above 26%. Swing-and-miss will always be an element of Moncada’s game, and he’s already shown that he has the tools to live with it. But it’s still a problem if that’s the best-case scenario. Taken with the rest of his plate discipline profile, we think there’s more room for improvement there than he’s getting credit for.
Walk rate and overall discipline are slightly more complex, but it’s not rocket science. Despite running a BB% well over 10% for his pro career entering last year, the adjustment to a more aggressive approach that fully unlocked Moncada’s batted-ball potential also appeared to simultaneously tank his walk rate to dangerously low levels. With a low-BB/high-K profile, the margins will always be thinner, and there are questions that need to be answered for us to proceed with confidence. If we’re going to look at the guts of his batted balls, we might as well give the same due process to his approach. Let’s look at his decision making and results at the plate broken down by zone and see where there’s room for improvement or regression.
Baseball Savant’s Swing/Take profiles are an excellent way to see where a player’s plate decisions added or subtracted offensive value. It’s a lot of info, but here’s Moncada’s 2019 profile, for a visual aid:
Phil Goyette at Prospects Live recently broke down the shift in Moncada’s plate discipline from 2018 to 2019, noting that the biggest changes came in the “Shadow” zone around the edges of the plate. This area is where the bulk of Moncada’s newfound aggressiveness paid off. His swing percentage in the Shadow moved from several points below average to several points above it, and thanks to a 89th/93rd percentile wOBA/xwOBA on pitches in that zone, he went from an abysmal 23 runs lost on them in 2018 to just a single negative run in 2019.
That’s a substantial leap, but assuming all else remains the same, it still feels risky to take for granted a player who derives so much value from punishing pitches that aren’t necessarily easy to hit. We still believe there are still improvements that can be made to this approach. Ideally, any regression in batted ball luck will be well-compensated if his pitch recognition continues to improve.
Pay attention to two other changes in the Swing/Take profile. First, note that despite his newfound aggressiveness in the Shadow zone, his swing rate on pitches over the heart of the plate barely budged, accumulating more than -11 take runs on those pitches for the second straight season. Among hitters who saw at least 100 pitches over the heart of the plate last year, Moncada’s wOBA ranked in the 83rd percentile despite swinging at those pitches less frequently than 70% of his peers. This is an obvious space for improvement. Second, observe that he doubled his swing rate at pitches in the “Chase” zone, but with a negligible improvement in contact rate over 2018. Moncada was no longer plagued by a league-leading rate of strikeouts looking, but his new propensity for chasing bad pitches is a cause for concern on its own.
We know Moncada can make it work with sketchy plate discipline numbers, but if he does wind up on the opposite end of the luck spectrum, improving on these deficiencies is the surest visible path to improvement. It’s easy to forget that he’s just 24 years of age; he’s got plenty of time to improve upon these skills with more experience. Who knows if he’ll be able to make good on this route to cutting his strikeouts; however, if he does, there won’t be any doubt about his status as an elite hitter.
What We Can’t Get From The Data
We’ve now traveled from the concrete reality of how well Moncada hits the ball (really well!) to the purely theoretical, suggesting that in spite of his real flaws (there are a few!), his performance can still go in a direction that isn’t down. To conclude, we’re going to travel even further into the subjective abyss to talk about the eye test, common sense, and what we should be looking for when we do these kinds of analyses.
Hold the rotten tomatoes for just a second. We’re not about to extoll the virtues of eyeballing, knowing a ballplayer when you see one, and not giving a damn what the numbers say. That doesn’t mean it’s not okay to trust your eyes sometimes! If you were to go watch the White Sox play without any of the names on the back of the jerseys, we think it wouldn’t take long to figure out who the best player on the team is.
So let’s watch a few Yoan Moncada at bats. Here he is absolutely tanking one to right field. Here’s a double down into the corner, and another gapper from the other side of the plate that almost left the yard. Watch some outs, too. A routine fly ball, a groundout into the shift, even a couple strikeouts. Here’s two of those lucky singles, pokes against the shift through the left side.
You might notice that Moncada has a pretty swing. There’s something to that. It’s compact, clean, and powerful, and when he’s at his best, he stays loose and balanced enough to be able to put that swing on a ball thrown just about anywhere hittable. That balance is key. Doug Latta, one of the game’s most influential independent hitting coaches and architects of the fly ball revolution, calls balance the most important skill a hitter can possess. It’s what allows a hitter like Moncada to consistently make quality contact all over the zone, a valuable trait that was a key factor in the decision to have him take a more aggressive approach.
That’s a rare ability, and it tracks with his contact quality. In Moncada’s case, “aggressiveness” was understanding that he doesn’t need to wait for a meatball down the middle to do damage. For most hitters, a ground ball means a breakdown somewhere along the kinetic chain. Infielders of Moncada’s build generally aren’t capable of consistently hitting ground balls with high exit speeds because they aren’t usually the result of a great swing. Moncada’s 91.2 MPH average exit velocity on ground balls is an outlier in part because his swing is an outlier. When he goes after the ball, he hits it hard everywhere.
What’s the significance of that? On its own, nothing. Lots of stuff goes into hitting; swing mechanics are just a small part of it. But they’re still one of the few things left in the game that can only be observed through qualitative description. When you’re trying to understand why a hitter did what they did, pure observation can still give you hints that are hard to parse in numbers.
With the depth of the measurement tools we have access to in baseball, it can be tempting to assume that data will tell us all we need to know. But there’s a reason we began by talking about perspectives. As comprehensive as our data may be, it cannot be the only lens we look at baseball through. It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees in the Baseball Savant search engine, and we’re often as guilty of it as anyone else. There are some mysteries of the game that are adequately (or better) answered by watching someone play baseball, and we think this question about Moncada’s ability is one of them.
Holding Analysis to a Higher Standard
We first came to the case of Moncada because it felt like there was an abnormal gap between our visual perception of him last season and the conclusions much of the baseball community reached after evaluating his 2019 performance. We watched a lot of Yoan Moncada in 2019, and anecdotally, it seemed that his hits rarely played out as lucky. Hearing so much about this luck prompted us to develop a reminder that all this data we can access are just bits and pieces in the much larger picture of baseball. You can learn more than you’d think by just observing that bigger picture; a characterization of one element of the game is by no means always applicable to the whole. Hopefully it doesn’t seem like an overly radical idea that in some circumstances, watching someone hit might tell us more than a single-variable regression of stats that are nothing without their context.
There are always plenty of points to be made questioning the sustainability of any elite statistical run, but we must still allow for the possibility that a performance is unique because a player is unique. Beyond hitting ability, if we didn’t care about word count, we could talk all day about Moncada’s defense, sprint speed, and base-running all ranking in the top-5 among starting third basemen in Major League Baseball. When looking at the complete package, an explanation for out-of-the-ordinary results doesn’t always need to be overly complex.
We think it’s worth gently pointing out a place where data without context can lead anyone astray. We simply thought it was a bold statement to assert that despite excellent outcomes, elite underlying metrics and passing the eye test with flying colors, Moncada “got lucky everywhere” because of two regression plots with four total variables. Few relationships in baseball are one-to-one, and it doesn’t make sense to draw massive conclusions based on a single low r-squared (or two). We can’t know if any single variable is a significant predictor of anything without accounting for the myriad of other factors that play a role in explaining a dependent variable. Outcomes in baseball are murky enough that null hypothesis testing is rarely as straightforward as we’d like it to be.
Even if there is a high r-squared while accounting for several variables, context is still everything in baseball and statistics. There’s a rigorous methodology to using a regression analysis to defend a hypothesis, and it’s only really necessary when we need large-scale insight on something we’re not otherwise seeing. With Moncada, the answers are in the batted ball profile, expected stats, and, yes, the eye test. Regression analyses just seem like a little overkill.
That being the case, when something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, swings like a duck, and has a duck’s xwOBA, we don’t need great lengths to find out whether it’s actually a duck. It sounds frighteningly old-school, but there’s no need to overthink some things. The MLB database is full of molehills waiting to be turned into mountains. We can’t say if Yoan Moncada will hit .315 or be 40% better than league average on offense, or where the precise statistical line is between meeting expectations or failing to follow up next season. But it is eminently clear to us that there’s no need to question whether he’s as talented as his stat line was impressive. So, is Yoan Moncada actually good? Yes, silly goose. He’s very good.
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