What can Royals fans say about Adalberto Mondesi’s 2019?

Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi may be one of the club’s most fascinating pieces going forward. 2019 was his first full season where he began and finished with the big league club, as in previous seasons, he jumped back and forth between Omaha and Kansas City on a frequent basis. Part of that was due to the position being blocked by previous shortstop Alcides Escobar, a playoff hero who had regressed in his final seasons in Kansas City. That being said, Mondesi also had his fair share of trouble against big league pitching, as Mondesi posted an average wRC+ of 25 combined -0.8 WAR in 2016 and 2017 over 72 games and 209 plate appearances. Heading in to 2018, there was some worry among Royals faithful that Mondesi would end up as a defensive-only shortstop in the mold of previous Royals letdowns like Tony Pena, Jr. and Yuniesky Betancourt.

However, even though he struggled early on in 2018, Mondesi turned it around in the second half, posting his best big-league numbers in his young career at only 22 years old. Over 75 games and 291 plate appearances, Mondesi posted a wRC+ of 114, hit 14 home runs, swiped 32 bags, and accumulated a WAR of 2.8. Suddenly, by the conclusion of the 2018 season, the young Mondesi not only appeared to be the Royals shortstop of the future, but he also showed potential that he could develop to be one of the best shortstops in Major League Baseball relatively soon.

For the first time in his career, Mondesi started and finished the season in Kansas City, with the exception of some injury rehab assignments in the minors. And in his first full-season big-league stint, Mondesi showed some flashes of improvement and brilliance, as well as some growing pains that demonstrate he has some development to undertake if he wants to be a future All-Star.

Let’s break down Mondesi’s season by category and see how he improved or plateaued in 2019.

Mondesi at the plate…

In 2018, Mondesi showed that he could not only be serviceable at the plate (which he had not done in 2016 and 2017), but could perhaps be transcendent. Over 291 plate appearances, Mondesi posted a slash of .276/.306/.498 with an OPS of .804 and 14 home runs. Mondesi did steal 32 bags, but Mondesi had always displayed prowess on the basepaths both in his limited stints in Kansas City as well as the minors (he had stolen 43 bases on 47 attempts between Double and Triple-A in 2016 and 2017).

The power on the other hand was a revelation. After posting isolated slugging numbers of .096 and .075 in 2016 and 2017, respectively in Kansas City, that number jumped to .222 in 2018. Suddenly Mondesi was displaying superstar potential, as if he could be the kind of two-way shortstop that Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter or Nomar Garciaparra was in the 90’s. And he definitely displayed that at times, even this year, as evidenced by this home run off of Astros ace Gerrit Cole

With a full off-season of tape on Mondesi, pitchers were more prepared to exploit Mondesi’s weaknesses which mostly stemmed from his free-swinging approach. Even during his breakout second half of 2018, Mondesi showed serious holes in his swing at the dish according to plate discipline data from Fangraphs. In 2018, he posted a swinging strike percentage of 18.2 percent and a contact rate of 67 percent, both pretty below average numbers, especially for a player of Mondesi’s speed. This year, pitchers exposed those flaws constantly: Mondesi swung at more pitches outside the strike zone (42.2 percent compared to 37.1 percent in 2018), saw less strikes (40.2 percent to 42.1 percent in 2018), and witnessed his contact rate dip (63.4 percent from 67 percent in 2018) in addition to his swinging strike percentage rise (21 percent from 18.2 percent in 2018).

Thus, it’s no coincidence that with his plate discipline being exposed that his peripheral numbers declined a bit in 2019. Mondesi’s slash regressed to .263/.291/.424 and he also saw his OPS (.715) and wRC+ (82) to more league average or slightly below marks. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With Mondesi’s base running and defense, these numbers will be good enough to keep him entrenched as the Royals’ starting shortstop for a good while. After all, Escobar’s best offensive seasons for the Royals (2012 and 2014) never resulted him in posting a wRC+ in the 100 mark (it was 97 and 93, respectively those seasons). But that being said, if Mondesi wants to be transcendent and a multiple-time All-Star (which he has the potential to be), then he will need to improve his plate discipline (his career BB/K ratio is 0.14 which is EXTREMELY poor).

Mondesi on the basepaths and in the field…

Mondesi at the plate plateaued in 2019 (and that’s putting it nicely, really). However, as a baserunner and fielder, Mondesi proved that he is one the best in baseball.

When it comes to the basepaths, Mondesi proved to be almost impossible to catch for opposing backstops. Despite struggling with injury issues toward the end of the season (he couldn’t even slide head first for a while), Mondesi swiped 43 bases on 50 attempts (86 percent), which was an improvement from 2018, where he stole 32 bases on 39 attempts (82 percent). And it wasn’t just stolen bases where Mondesi displayed prowess with his speed: his BsR (baserunning runs above average) improved from 5.1 to 6.4, and he hit over three times as many triples (10) in 2019 in comparison to 2018 (3). Thus, if Mondesi didn’t struggle with injuries in the second half of 2019, it’s fascinating to think what he could have done overall on the bases (60 stolen bases may not have been out of the question at the very least).

Defensively, Mondesi continued to flash the kind of leather that Royals fans had grown accustomed to with Escobar from 2011-2017. Mondesi was worth 4.2 runs above average according to Fangraphs’ Def rating, and he did that despite struggling through injury. Furthermore, Mondesi, who had a tendency to flub easy plays from time to time, improved overall as a defender according to Inside Edge data from Fangraphs. He was better at making routine plays (97.7 percent in comparison to 95.5 percent in 2018), and improved greatly in terms of making likely plays (77.3 to 85.7 percent from 2018 to 2019) and even plays (50 to 62.5 percent from 2018 to 2019).

Mondesi will be out 5-6 months after shoulder surgery, which most likely will have an effect early in the season on those two plus aspects of Mondesi’s game as he readjusts after rehab. That being said, Royals fans are hoping that Mondesi will come back fully healthy, because if he does, the Royals could have a potential multiple-year All-Star middle-infielder for years to come, especially if his hitting can spark back up. As a runner and fielder, Mondesi is one of the league’s best.

What does the future hold for Mondesi in KC?

2019 was a mixed bag for Mondesi, as there were plenty of aspects of his season where Royals fans could feel good about the young infielder, but there were also some aspects, especially on the hitting end, that were cause for concern. It will be interesting to see how new management will handle Mondesi’s approach at the plate this upcoming Spring, especially as he recovers from surgery. Pedro Grifol had a major impact on Jorge Soler, who also was a wild-swinging hitter when he came to the Royals but has matured and become one of the most dangerous designated hitters in the American League. It will be interesting to see if Grifol will be kept around by new management with Yost’s retirement, as it is possible that Grifol could have a similar impact on helping Mondesi develop his eye at the plate, which would only make him more valuable as a player.

Mondesi will also be hitting arbitration in 2021, according to Cot’s Contracts, which puts Dayton Moore and the Royals in an interesting predicament. New Royals owner John Sherman seems serious about winning, and it will be interesting what he wants Moore to do when it comes to Mondesi and his contract. Do the Royals make a commitment and extend him now, as a sign that the Royals are serious about keeping their best and brightest players? Or do the Royals wait a year and see how Mondesi recovers from injury, a wise move, but not exactly a sign of faith in the 24-year-old from management.

There is no doubt that Mondesi will be key to the Royals’ future, especially as they rebuild and look to recapture the magic of 2014 and 2015. Hopefully for Royals fans, Mondesi recovers from surgery this off-season and can stay fully healthy and improve in 2020.

Because if he does…well…let’s just say he’ll make Royals fans forget about Escobar’s legacy at the shortstop position real quickly.

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