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Thinking Out Loud: On what to do with Adalberto Mondesi

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MLB: Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Hi friends! You probably haven’t seen my name on these parts much recently, which has nothing to do with any lack of interest but more of a lack of availability. Rather than forcing myself to write - particularly when I’m not available to do so - I figured I’d pursue more of an avenue of writing when I have something to say.

So I’m going to call this series “Thinking Out Loud”. It will likely only appear sporadically when I have something that I really want to write/discuss and it’s too long that I can’t have it done with 240 characters on Twitter. I can’t promise this won’t be the only Thinking Out Loud, but I suspect I’ll always have too many opinions that too few people want to hear. And as long as the higher-ups give me the keys to the car, I’ll go for a drive when the weather is nice.

So let’s talk about Adalberto Mondesi.

Somewhere in the ether, the collective Royals internet fandom (mostly confined to #RoyalsTwitter) got to discussing just what the hell to do with Mondesi. With his most recent injury that was preceded by another injury, everyone came to some general community feelings: disappointment mixed with frustration with a scoop of exhaustion. So much so that in a span of two days the KC Star opined in three separate pieces on the subject (here, here, and here).

Because right now all we know are the following three truths: Mondesi is far too talented (and under club control three more years) to give up on, he’s injured far too often to count on, and the player and team cannot keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing.

Functionally every discussion of what to do with Mondesi revolves around his talent and how he can’t be traded now because his value is too low. So let’s look at each one.

His talent

Listen, I’m going to say a lot of things here that might sound like I think Mondesi stinks or something; I don’t think that. He’s a very dynamic player who athletically and from a pure tools-based standpoint is one of the best on the field at any given inning.

But I feel like there is this idea that either (a) Mondesi is a great hitter when healthy or (b) if he only got to play consistently he’d be a great hitter. As if all he needs is 400 consecutive plate appearances and talent will out. It’s not not true Mondesi hasn’t been able to have a string of 400 straight plate appearances but the reason he hasn’t is because of himself. There have been points where Mondesi was given the chance to play every single day and either he hit poorly (2017) or got injured (pretty much every other time).

For his career, he’s slashed .254/.287/.428 - good for an 86 wRC+. For any other position or skillset, that would be a doomable slash line. But Adalberto plays at the second-most valuable position and he plays it really well. He also is quite the baserunner given his speed. There is a baseline that elite defense and baserunning provides, and it’s high enough for a shortstop that a sub-.300 OBP isn’t the end of things.

Okay, let’s ignore those first two years where he clearly was too young, too inexperienced, and too overmatched. Looking at only 2018-2020 he’s hit .265/.296/.444 for a 93 wRC+. In 2019 he had 443 plate appearances (not all consecutive mind you) and in 2020 he played in all but one game for the season. In those 967 PA between 2018-2020, he still has a sub-.300 OBP and is 7% below league average as a hitter.

Again, with his defense and baserunning, that works! It’s still slightly below-average for a shortstop hitting-wise, but in between those years he was worth ~3.5 WAR/600PA (yes I understand the irony of using a 600PA pro-rated denominator for Mondesi).

But maybe...this is who he is? We are working with just over 1,200 plate appearances for his career. Months in which he has hit .356/.408/.667 (100 PA in September of 2020) and months that he has hit .179/.212 .221 (99 PA In August of 2020).

Here is the K% and BB% of every hitter since 2018 to get 900+ plate appearances (data via FanGraphs).

Y Axis - K% X Axis - BB%

Ideally, you’d like to be in the bottom right but really anywhere the farther right on the X-axis the better. Mondesi for his career has struggled to make contact and with his approach, even relative to his similar-aged peers.

It’s going to take not just playing time (because he’s had 1,200 plate appearances at this point) for him to get better as a hitter, but a likely fundamental change to his approach at the plate and ability to make contact.

Swing/Take Rates via Statcast

His value

Through the normal discourse of Twitter, we got to talking about who Mondesi is most like, which gives us an idea of his value. I think the Byron Buxton comp fits pretty well, even though I think Buxton is a better player.

But there is another interesting one: Willy Adames.

I know, that sounds kind of underwhelming but when you look at their profiles side-by-side

It’s not a perfect fit; Adames has been a better hitter and Mondesi the better fielder/runner, but their playing time, ISO, K%, BABIP, slugging, and WAR are nearly identical. Coincidentally, Adams was just traded by the Rays to the Brewers for a pair of relievers, so there is some liquidity in that market.

Statcast also has a player comparison tool based on batted ball profiles. Here it is for Mondesi in 2020:

Like Mondesi, Mazara was a highly regarded prospect who debuted at a young age (21 for Mazara) but also had inconsistencies with his approach. Mazara is on his third team (Rangers, White Sox, and now Tigers) by his age-26 season.

Javier Baez might be the holy grail of electric Major League middle infielders with pee wee league plate discipline. For several years Baez added enough value in baserunning and fielding that he could be a productive player as a below league-average hitter. That is until his age-25 season in 2018 when he went from above average to MVP worthy and then carried a bit of that over in 2019, posting 5.4 and 4.4 WAR seasons, respectively. However, in 2020 he’d hit woefully (57 wRC+) before returning back to some semblance of his pre-breakout self (.226/.264/.460 - 95 wRC+).

But here is the main-main point: the idea is to never sell players at their low, but the issue is you don’t know sometimes when they are at their low. After Mondesi played in 102 games and struggled to hit in 2019 you wouldn’t have traded (he was still worth 2.4 WAR by the way). After 2020 when he played the entire season and hit .256/.294/.416 you wouldn’t have traded him either. In both cases you could argue that trading him would have been trading him at his low. Now he’s hurt again this year and the same calls are being made... “you can’t trade him at this low”. But his value arguably has continued to decline over the past few years because of his inability to stay on the field or hit well enough when he is playing.

You want to sell high and you want to buy low, but as Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are unknown unknowns. Much like knowing a player’s ceiling, there is a good argument we don’t know a player’s low-point either.

Baez and Mondesi remained bound by their approach offensively. And yes, while there are times and even long stretches that they can slip the surly bonds of Earth, they’ll typically always fall back towards where they were without changes to their approach. But you can keep waiting and waiting and waiting for something that might never come or it might come only briefly. It only came briefly for Tim Beckham, Jonathan Villar, Pedro Alvarez, Jorge Alfaro, Mike Zunino, and others.

With Mondesi you are trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice: health and performance as you need both. We’ve seen healthy Mondesi and unhealthy Mondesi. We’ve seen consistently bad hitter Mondesi and short-term good hitter Mondesi. We’ve yet to see healthy and consistently good hitter Mondesi, and while you can keep waiting, the Royals have burned through coming up on four years of service time waiting. Time left on a contract is an input for valuation and Mondesi has been losing pieces of that crucial input on a daily basis while he sits on the injured list.

This isn’t a call to trade Mondesi but it is a call to recognize that players often are who they are. Mondesi may always just be an electric, oft-injured, free-swinging dynamite who on any given day could go 0-5 with five strikeouts or hit a pair of triples and 450+ foot home runs. That’s a fun player to have and he’s proven he’s good for 2-wins a season for the most part given his defense and skills on the base path. Mondesi’s ceiling may be capped by his own self through injury and approach. And that is fine. Some players are meant to be what they end up being.

You don’t have to trade Mondesi but you do have to ask if his value can get lower and if you are willing to bet it won’t. Three or four seasons ago Javier Baez looked like he’d be worth $150M+ if he hit the free agent market. Now he might end up settling for $50M or a one-year”prove it” deal. There is oftentimes value in not waiting and accepting that the risk of waiting is less than the return you can get. Have we reached that point with Mondesi? I don’t know. What I do know is that we keep saying “you can’t trade him this low” every time he goes on the injured list. I do know that despite his atomic bomb level of explosiveness he has things to work on at the plate with now 1,200+ plate appearances under his belt. I do know that the best sign of future injury is prior injury. And I do know that indecisiveness leads to losing time and in sports, time is damn near literally money.

If you are bullish on Mondesi, you try to make him an offer for an extension. You reckon his value can’t get much lower, so you offer him a contract that he can’t turn down, betting on a rebound.

If you are bearish on Mondesi, you trade him, accepting the idea that he’ll always be injured and always be a below-average hitter. Willy Adames proves there is a market for similar hitters and Mondesi probably should be worth more given his toolset.

Either way, time is running out for the Royals to make their decision, because their clock expires in ~800 days.