I don’t know how to break this to you. It’s not something I want to say, but I think it’s important that you hear it. You see, the Royals are probably going to be bad again this year. I think they’ll be better than last year – Maikel Franco and Trevor Rosenthal are upgrades over Chris Owings and Brad Boxberger, and there’s no Wily Peralta on the roster whatsoever – but they’re still going to be kinda bad.
The thing about bad baseball teams is that they can still have great individual performances. Whit Merrifield broke George Brett’s franchise hitting streak record last year, and Jorge Soler set the club mark for home runs on a team that went 59-103. Last year’s team was lousy and didn’t win many games, but those two players were quite good. If the Royals were an NBA team, having two players of that caliber might have been enough to put them in the playoffs. But this is baseball, and baseball isn’t that way. So they were bad.
As great as Soler and Merrifield were last year, neither was an MVP contender. Soler did receive one tenth place vote on an MVP ballot, but that’s it. I don’t feel like either one of them got screwed either. They were good, but not that good. That’s not to say that the Royals couldn’t have an MVP finalist on the 2020 squad, even though they’re likely to be bad again. I mean, Mike Trout was last year’s MVP on a team that lost 90 games. It’s a total long shot, but wouldn’t it be fun to have a Royal in the MVP conversation?
It’s spring. Everyone’s tied for first place. Anything is possible. We have nothing better to do. Let’s make this happen. Let’s see what it would take for a Royal to be in contention for 2020 MVP.
To provide a baseline, last year’s AL MVP finalists are listed below, along with their triple slashes, wRC+ and fWAR.
2019 MVP Finalists
That’s a pretty typical field. As a rule, MVP finalists tend to be worth at least 7 WAR, though it varies year to year. In 2018, Jose Ramirez came in third with 8.0 fWAR, and in 2015, Lorenzo Cain came in third with 6.1 fWAR. It just depends how studly the studs were that year. But for the sake of this experiment, let’s assume that a 7-win player is at least in the conversation for league MVP. Let’s also establish that being in the conversation — MVP-caliber — is all we’re trying to accomplish here. If Mike Trout is healthy next year, he will be the MVP, and all will be right with the world. We’re not trying to dethrone the king. Being a finalist is plenty good.
So who will it be?
Pitchers aren’t often given much consideration for MVP, but just to get it out of the way, let’s look at the Royals pitching staff to see if there is anyone who might squeak into the MVP race with a career year. Nope? OK, let’s move on to position players.
Soler was the Royals’ best hitter last year, but as a DH he’s unlikely to get many votes. J.D. Martinez had an unreal season in 2018 as DH/bad right fielder and wasn’t a finalist. David Ortiz never won an MVP despite being David Ortiz, though he did finish second in 2005. Soler is at a severe disadvantage simply because of the position he plays, which essentially rules him out.
Merrifield is another obvious candidate, but even in his best season to date he was only (only?!) worth 5.2 fWAR. He primarily played second base that year, where he’s most valuable defensively, and he stole 45 bases. With Whit slated to play in the outfield this year, where he’s less likely to rack up wins, and with his sprint speed declining as it is wont to do with age, it’s unlikely he tops five wins again.
Hunter Dozier could do it, I suppose. He’d have to hit at least as well as he did in the first half of 2019 and play better defense in the outfield than I think is likely in order to get anywhere close to 7 wins. It’s possible, I suppose.
But I think Adalberto Mondesi might be the better bet. Or at least the most fun. And what’s the point of a ridiculous exercise like this if not to have fun? Yes, Mondesi is our man.
This will be an uphill battle because he was far from an MVP last year. His 2.4 fWAR and .263/.291/.424 batting line put him in the bottom half of regular shortstops. He has the talent, however, and with a full season of play and a true breakout, he could get there.
Staying on the field will be key. He played in only 102 games last year after dislocating his shoulder on a diving play. I am admittedly the proud owner of a 40-something year old body in decline, but I think even the teenage version of me would have thought that play was reckless. And for what it’s worth, Mike Matheny recently indicated that the Royals have been working with Mondesi on taking care of his body throughout the season. Just because he can do something doesn’t meant he should do it. Good grief.
So that’s fixed. On to the next thing.
OK, the bat needs some work. The potential is there though. He only hit 9 home runs last year, but in 2018 he hit 14 home runs in only 75 games, and he’s always had sneaky pop in his bat. His speed turns infield grounders into base hits, as is evidenced by his career .333 BABIP, and when you’re that fast, line drives tend to yield extra bases. But his 29.6% K rate is way too high, and his career 4.1% walk rate is so bad it looks like a typo (it’s not, I checked). Plate discipline is what’s holding him back. We’re going to have to do something about that if we’re going to make Mondesi an MVP candidate.
The thing is, as good as he is at legging out infield singles and taking extra bases, he doesn’t need to have elite plate discipline to become a great hitter. Just lowering his K rate to 20% and boosting his walk rate to 8% – right around league average – while maintaining his career BABIP would lift his career triple slash to (carry the 1…) .275/.332/.441. That’s respectable! And if he taps into a bit of his power potential and slugs more like he did in 2018 when he had a .222 ISO, he gets up to .275/.332/.497. Very nice!
A full season of that production at the plate plus Gold Glove caliber defense while leading the league in steals would make him one of the best shortstops in baseball. But the bat probably isn’t quite good enough to make him an MVP candidate. In order to get over the hump, he’s going to have to bat .300. In order to do that, he’ll need to improve quality of contact, start using all fields and put up a Merrifield-esque .350 BABIP. He’s also going to have to get that strikeout rate a couple points below league average. Assuming that doesn’t boost his ISO (it probably would, but let’s not get greedy), that puts his triple slash at .300/.357/.522 and his OPS at .879 – just a tick below Marcus Semien’s .892 from last season. Now we’re talking.
I’m not up to the task of calculating WAR, but I’d bet that with his glove and legs, he’d be worth more than seven wins for the season with that kind of batting line. He won’t win MVP with those numbers, and if there’s a strong field of candidates he might not even be a finalist, but he’d be in the conversation at the very least, which is all we’re really shooting for here. Mission accomplished.
That’s a lot of gains for Mondesi to make in a season, especially after spending the off-season rehabbing from shoulder surgery. And for the record, I don’t think there’s any way it would actually happen – at least not in 2020. But he’s still only 24 years old and there’s reason to believe that there’s time for him to improve. He’s yet to even play a full season at the big league level, and he’s so, so talented. He’s already a fun player to watch. If he improves his plate discipline to something resembling league average, he’ll be really exciting. If he does just a bit more, there’s no reason he can’t be one of the very best in baseball.