One interesting, if not surprising development from spring training this year is Yoan Moncada getting a shot at becoming the leadoff hitter for the 2018 Chicago White Sox. Sox skipper Rick Renteria told reporters that Moncada in the leadoff role was something he has discussed with Moncada in the past, “We sat down and frankly had a conversation. where have you felt most comfortable in your career? In the minor leagues or where ever, he likes the leadoff role, he likes hitting second”
The early results of the lead off experiment have been positive for Moncada. He reached base three times on Monday and came around to score all three times. So does Moncada fit in the lead off role long term? Let’s take a look.
On paper, Moncada checks all the boxes for a strong leadoff hitter. As a prospect, Moncada’s speed graded out at 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale, qualifying his speed as “well above average”. Moncada’s speed was underutilized last year in his first year the White Sox, stealing only three bases on five attempts. In the leadoff role, Moncada’s speed could become a lethal tool and one that Renteria would be able to better take advantage of.
Moncada showed his ability to be an elite threat on the base paths in the minor leagues, swiping 49 bases in 81 games in A-ball in 2015, and 36 bases in advanced-A ball in 2016 in only 61 games. In those two years Moncada was thrown out only a total of 11 times, good for a 91 percent success rate. That kind of speed will surely translate to the major leagues if Moncada were to become more aggressive on the base paths.
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While Moncada’s speed is unique, and certainly a qualifying factor for him to be a lead off hitter, what about his bat? Moncada got off to a slow start in his first big league stint with the White Sox, hitting .231 and striking out 32 percent of the time. These numbers are obviously not encouraging when looking for a lead off hitter, but they do not tell the whole story. Moncada reached base at a 33 percent rate, in part because of his patience and good eye. As a prospect, Moncada’s hit tool was considered his biggest question mark, but it is safe to assume that Moncada will come around with his bat and hit for a higher average and draw more walks, if he were to be featured in the lead off role.
Despite his high strikeout rate, Moncada still forced pitchers to throw a lot of pitches. As a switch hitter, Moncada is a challenge for both righties and lefties. In just over 200 plate appearances in 2017, Moncada was able to make pitchers throw five or more pitches over 15 percent of the time, a very high rate. As a leadoff hitter, this trait would make Moncada even more dangerous. Pitchers would not be able to throw Moncada their best stuff, as the risk of putting his speed on base with hitters like Jose Abreu behind him would be too great.
Another metric that is good for gauging Moncada’s potential value as a leadoff hitter is his walk rate. Despite his high strikeout rate in his first taste of the majors, Moncada still managed to produce a high walk rate, 12.6 percent. Had he qualified, that would have placed him in the top 20 in all of baseball. In the minors, Moncada had walk rates as high as 16 percent. As he adjusts to major league pitching, and has a full year in the majors, that number will likely only go up as his strikeouts go down. It is also worth noting that having the protection in the lineup the leadoff spot would provide would cause this number to go up as well.
Moncada’s ability to get on base is what could set him apart as a lead off hitter now and in the future. Moncada’s trademark patience should help him moving forward as well. Another piece of good news for Moncada is that his batting average on balls in play is a healthy .325. When Moncada makes contact, he hits it well and finds gaps. His high BABIP could also set him apart, and with the increased quality of pitches he would surely see in the leadoff role, this number could make him a potentially special hitter. All of Moncada’s numbers from the major leagues are obviously from a very limited sample size, but the numbers suggest a future leadoff hitter may rest in Moncada.
While his tools certainly seem to fit the mold of a leadoff hitter, the White Sox must consider another important factor, the leadoff spot may be an under utilization of all of Moncada’s tools. Commonly drawing comparisons to Seattle second-baseman Robinson Cano, Moncada possess the ability to hit for power that would slot him as more of a middle of the lineup bat. Many scouts said Moncada could potentially be a 30-30 guy, a player who hits for 30 home runs and steals 30 bases. This would obviously make Moncada an elite player, who needs to be hitting second or third in the lineup, allowing him to drive in more runs.
If Moncada evolves into the 30-30 player that many scouts foresaw, he would need to be hitting elsewhere. That being said, Moncada in his limited sample size has shown more of the tools that a leadoff hitter would have, rather than those of a middle of the lineup bat. Although, more and more these days teams are using hitters with some pop to lead off, in which case Moncada would make even more sense at the top of the lineup moving forward, even if his power improves from what we have seen so far.
Moncada spent most of his time hitting second in the White Sox lineup in 2017, hitting .265, more than 60 points higher than when he hit in any other spot in the lineup. That is further proof that Moncada is most comfortable as a top of the lineup hitter, like Renteria told reporters. It is important to consider the kind of opportunities the leadoff spot would provide Moncada. It would allow him to hit in front of the best hitters in the lineup, more specifically Jose Abreu in 2017, and Eloy Jimenez moving forward. The presence of the Sox strong middle of the order bats would allow Moncada to see better pitches than he saw in 2017, and would provide some much needed protection. In theory, this would knock down Moncada’s strikeouts and increase his walks, a potentially lethal combination that would allow his tools to truly become unlocked.
The kind of protection Moncada would receive would result in an even higher walk rate than he already draws, and would surely cut down on the number of strikeouts the young second baseman produces. It’s a tantalizing idea, Moncada leading off while being followed by Eloy Jimenez. While Moncada’s career trajectory takes shape, the leadoff role seemingly suits him very well. If he is able to unlock all his tools, and become the power threat many are hoping he will become, the leadoff spot won’t suit him as well, but from what we have seen in the very early stages of his career, Moncada as a leadoff hitter makes a lot of sense. Not only does it fit his unique tool set very well, it would also fill a hole in the White Sox lineup in 2017.
Rick Renteria promised reporters that they would be seeing more of Moncada in the lead off spot moving forward in the spring, and that will paint a better picture as to whether he is truly the lead off hitter of the future. For now though, it is an experiment worth trying, and could potentially result in one of the most feared leadoff hitters in baseball being born.