Raul Mondesi

Mondesi’s Hot Start Shouldn’t Change Anything

The best prospect in the Royals system isn’t technically a prospect due to his 149 plate appearances during the 2016 season. The Royals quick promotion of Raul Adalberto Mondesi stripped him of his prospect status, but that doesn’t change the fact that it should probably remain his designation given how raw and seemingly unready for the big leagues he was last season.

After going 2 for 4 in Sunday’s spring training game with the Giants, Mondesi has started the Cactus League 9 for 17 with a double and a home run. Given that he had just six extra base hits in his 149 big league plate appearances in 2016, this is a nice development. But probably more important is these are spring training stats. Not only are these spring training stats, but these are first week of spring training stats. They don’t matter. They aren’t important.

Yes, you’d absolutely prefer to have good performances than bad performances (most of the time), but there’s still the simple fact that it’s a terrible environment to judge players based on the numbers they put up. I actually had sort of a fear that Mondesi would have a ridiculous spring and make the Royals feel like they have to give him the big league job at second base. They’ve always been ridiculously aggressive with Mondesi throughout the minor leagues with quick promotions and that continued with his trip to the big leagues last season. One common trend that has accompanied each of his promotions is that he likely wasn’t ready for that level.

What I’m getting into here is that even if Mondesi keeps up this fantastic performance from his first few games of the spring, I don’t believe the Royals should start him in the big leagues on Opening Day. It most certainly isn’t that simple, but I’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s talk about why it’s a bad idea for Mondesi to break camp in the big leagues.

When he arrived in Kansas City, it was on the heels of a strong but brief performance in Triple-A Omaha. In 14 total games, he hit .304/.328/.536, and over the final nine games, he hit .400/.432/.714. You know what I’m going to say about sample sizes, so let’s just skip that. When he got to the majors, you also know what happened. He hit .185/.231/.281. At times, he didn’t even look that good. He struck out 48 times in his 149 plate appearances and only drew six walks, which was pretty much every fear I had about Mondesi at the big league level last season. The talent is apparent (I promise we’ll get to that), but he’s by no means the perfect player. His biggest flaws are sort of related – plate discipline and ability to make contact.

Both reared their ugly heads beyond just the walk and strikeout rates. Mondesi swung at a staggering 41.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Actually, that’s not that staggering, but it is a lot. It’s way worse than league average and within shouting distance of Salvador Perez who swings at some of the worst pitches I’ve ever seen. Where the biggest problem came in is that Mondesi made contact with just 38.4 percent of those pitches outside the zone that he swung at. It got to a point where pitchers knew they’d get a swing and a miss on at least one pitch outside the zone during a Mondesi at bat. For reference, Perez made contact on 63.5 percent of his swings on pitches outside the strike zone.

In all, Mondesi made contact just 62.6 percent of the time on any pitch. There were 411 players who saw at least 500 pitches in 2016. Mondesi’s contact rate ranked 406th. So on the bright side, there were five players who made less contact. On the even brighter side, he ranked 405th among those 411 players in contact percentage on pitches swung at outside the strike zone. I guess if you want to continue the positivity, he only had the 396th worst swing rate at pitches outside the zone out of those 411, so we’re trending in the right direction, or something.

While there were also some questions about his defense, given that the metrics weren’t especially impressed with him, I think his offensive issues of knowing what to swing at and then making contact with that pitch was pretty clearly the big issue he had. There’s some reason for concern long-term because those issues don’t magically get better. Typically, players either have plate discipline or they don’t. Guys who struggle can get better. We’ve talked a lot about Mark Trumbo in reference to Peter O’Brien, and he’s a player who has gotten a lot better in these categories. They just don’t tend to be elite, but that’s probably even okay with Mondesi.

My point here is that I kind of feel like Mondesi could hit .500 all spring with two extra base hits for every 17 at bats and I still wouldn’t believe he was ready for the big leagues just yet. It’d be an encouraging spring, especially if he did it over 60+ at bats, but I really would like him to actually get the development time in Triple-A that he needs to become the player I still believe he can become.

But, see, there’s one issue holding this all up. Mondesi has an insane amount of talent and athleticism. If, and this is a big if, he has improved his ability to make contact to a point where he can be a .280 hitter or better, he’d probably still be the best man for the second base job given his competition. His speed and athleticism would allow that .280 average (with the bump in ISO that would be nice, too) to make him very valuable. Of all the options at second base for the Royals this spring, Mondesi is the only one who has a chance to be a star, so it would certainly be nice if he has fixed at least his contact issue. Still, the guy has to be able to take a walk or even a pitch that he shouldn’t be swinging at far more often than he’s shown in his minor league career, his big league career and his 2017 spring.

The likely outcome is that Mondesi cools off given that his plate discipline probably hasn’t improved much, if any, from last season. I guess my hope is that he’s magically figured things out, but in the likely event he hasn’t yet, I’m hopeful he gets to start the year in Triple-A to work on all those things he needs to work on. Hopefully, all the underlying skills catch up to his talent and he can be called upon to make the 2017 Royals better for a couple months before sliding over to become the shortstop for the foreseeable future.

The spring training stats are nice and shiny and an awful lot of fun, but I think the best thing for the 2017 Royals and the 2020 Royals is for Mondesi to keep developing in the minors in spite of how impressive he’s been to start the Cactus League schedule.

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