There is no question that Adalberto Mondesi has been one of the most disappointing Royals through the first five games of the Royals’ shortened 2020 campaign. After recovering from off-season surgery, many Royals fans expected the 25-year-old shortstop to break out in 2020, especially after playing his first full season in the big leagues a year ago. However, Mondesi has done anything but impress in all aspects of his game through this five-game start. He is currently hitting only .095 with a .102 wOBA through 21 plate appearances, he has been caught stealing in his lone stolen base attempt, and the usually sure-handed defender has already made three errors so far (two throwing errors and one fielding error). And if that wasn’t enough, Mondesi made a huge blunder in last night’s loss by not running out an infield pop up in the top of the ninth that was eventually dropped by CJ Cron, but was recovered by catcher Austin Romine, who consequently threw out the clueless Mondesi at first.
Here’s a tweet that summed up Royals fans’ feelings about Mondesi’s blunder and cold start thus far:
Again, no player is less popular right now than Mondesi, and that’s saying something considering Alex Gordon is also in the negative WAR club with him (-0.2 WAR, just 0.1 point better than Mondesi). After all, this isn’t the first time Royals fans have experienced frustration with Mondesi, as he struggled in limited stints in 2016 and 2017 before finally breaking out in the second half of 2018 (many Royals fans were claiming he was a “bust” going into 2018). That being said, despite having the worst start of any Royal thus far in 2020, manager Mike Matheny continues to show confidence in the kid, as he not only kept Mondesi in the lineup for Wednesday’s game, but he also had this to say about his shortstop after the Royals’ loss last night:
So what’s up with Mondesi? Why is he struggling? Well, if one looks at his Fangraphs profile carefully, the struggles actually stem back from last year, especially starting in June, when he started to deal with injury issues and was in and out of the lineup. Hence, let’s take a look at not only Mondesi this year, but even his profile in 2019 to get a better glimpse of Mondesi’s struggles, and what he needs to do to be salvageable franchise player for the Royals this year and beyond.
During the first two months of play in 2019, Mondesi was making the case that he was one of the most underrated shortstops in baseball. After finally getting the position full time from incumbent Alcides Escobar down the stretch in 2018, Mondesi proceeded to post a 104 wRC+ in April and a 109 wRC+ in May. Over 56 games and 247 plate appearances during the first two months of play, Mondesi not only hit six homers and swiped 20 bases, but he also posted an OPS of .812 and a BB/K ratio of 0.25, a sign that he was not only becoming a more powerful hitter, but a more patient one as well. Early on, it looked like Mondesi had the potential to be a 20-40 HR-SB guy in the mold of perhaps a Javy Baez, but with more speed and aptitude on the basepaths.
However, things tailed off for Mondesi in June, as he only played in 15 games due to nagging injuries. And in June, everything dropped off: his OPS fell to .497, his BB/K ratio dipped to 0.05, and his GB/FB rate increased from 1.00 in April to 2.00 in June. If Mondesi wasn’t striking out (and he also saw an increase there, from 24.0 in May to 33.8 percent in June), he was hitting the ball on the ground for easy outs. After two months of teasing baseball fans that he could be an All-Star shortstop in the American League, June proved the opposite: that he was a light-hitting infielder with plate discipline issues, which was certainly the case for Mondesi in limited stints in 2016 and 2017.
And unfortunately for Mondesi, that month of June proved to be the same story throughout the second half, especially as Mondesi missed about six weeks after an injury in mid-July against the White Sox. In the second half of play, Mondesi posted a 64 wRC+, .638 OPS, and BB/K ratio of 0.08. The regression could have been opposing pitchers adjusting to him after a hot start. It also could be credited to nagging injuries, and Mondesi just not feeling like himself in the field or at the plate. Whatever the reason, this much was certain: Mondesi was a much different (and much worse) player from June-to-September of 2019.
Thus, it should not be surprising that we are seeing the same kind of struggles from Mondesi early-on this July.
Metrically, Mondesi is displaying the same struggles this season from that four-month sample a year ago. His strikeout rate is a ridiculously high 42.9 percent, and he has failed to garner a walk so far in 21 plate appearances (though as Shaun Newkirk noted on Twitter, it took Mondesi 11 games to get a walk last year as well, so this isn’t new):
Surprisingly, Mondesi is hitting the ball more in the air than he did last year, as his 1.00 GB/FB ratio in 2020 is actually better than his 1.37 GB/FB ratio in the second half in 2019. However, he is hitting a good amount of infield fly balls, which don’t really do anything, and that is a trend that has stayed a bit stable from the second half a year ago. Last year, he had a infield fly ball rate of 15.8 percent. This year? That infield fly ball rate is 20 percent. Considering infield fly balls are usually automatic outs (well…nearly automatic, as yesterday proved), he will need to lower that percentage if he wants to see some more production at the plate (i.e. he needs to drive the ball more).
There is no question that this start has been frustrating for Mondesi and Royals fans alike. Mondesi is a likable player, who plays the game with enthusiasm, much like Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield and Brett Phillips. However, he is also a streaky guy, and it’s obvious from the emotion on his face that this struggle out of the gate is perhaps getting to him (he had that “what the hell is going on?” look in his eyes as he sat in the dugout after his baserunning blunder). While he’s still relatively young, it will be interesting to see how Mondesi bears down and handles this slump. Matheny is giving him the chance to redeem himself tonight, and he needs to have a good game in all aspects tonight in order to at least silence Royals fans a little bit.
At the same time though, Royals fans have to take Mondesi’s struggles with a grain of salt. Remember, he did NOT play any games in Spring Training (he wasn’t even expected to be fully ready by Opening Day had COVID not hit). And he hasn’t played any games since September 22nd of last year. All Mondesi has had in terms of live play was those intrasquad scrimmages and the three exhibition games. While as Royals fans we do not want to just give excuses for Mondesi’ early woes (especially the mental lapse last night), Mondesi has not exactly gotten as much game action in comparison to many of his teammates. And thus, that may be why Matheny is still trotting him out there: he may be treating this first two weeks of play as Mondesi’s Spring Training, and may gave him an additional one-two weeks after that before making any major decision on him (i.e. whether or not he sees the bench). It’s not easy to do during a 60-game season, but Matheny’s decision makes sense considering Mondesi’s circumstances leading up to this season.
However long Matheny gives Mondesi to get back into form, Royals fans certainly won’t be as patient. The Royals have a better shot to make the playoffs due to the shortened season, and any loss will feel more amplified in comparison to seasons past (as it has been on Royals Twitter, which has been a roller coaster of emotions).
Let’s hope though Mondesi can turn it around sooner than expected. Because if the Royals want to have any shot at second place in the Central, they will need a healthy and productive Mondesi (at the plate, in the field, and on the bases) to do so.