By Daniel Korach
If I asked you to guess which team finished 28.5 games out of the division race and never sniffed the playoffs also happened to have two of the best players in baseball, would you know? No, the Red Sox didn’t finish that far out of first; the answer is the Chicago White Sox. Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada were all too familiar with the word “bust” coming into this year: both are athletic freaks of nature, both have shoddy defensive reputation, and both never lived up to their offensive potentials. Nevertheless, that all changed in 2019.
What do Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Rod Carew, Manny Ramirez, Luke Appling, Tris Speaker, and Wade Boggs have in common with Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada? They are all members in the list of the top 25 highest single-season BABIP totals. BABIP has often been associated with luck, regression, and being unreflective of a player’s true production and talent, and I agree. However, when extrapolated over the careers of these Hall of Famers, little regression is seen.
Let me be clear, I’m not comparing Tim Anderson or Yoan Moncada to Hornsby, Ruth, or Cobb. However, seasons like their last do not aid the assertions of them as busts. The average career wOBA of the top 25 BABIP players with at least 8000 PA was greater than .410. Thus, the idea that talent and high BABIP are mutually exclusive proves to be incorrect. While luck is certainly a factor in all instances of inflated BABIP, it is no coincidence that some of the best of all time find themselves on this list.
Some of the greatest hitters of every generation are, bluntly, good at hitting baseballs. In Moncada’s example, he’s one of those players. At the top of the upper quartile in nearly every tracked Statcast metric, Moncada is not simply getting lucky. He hits the ball hard, averaging nearly 93 MPH EV. With a career high 12.2%-barrel rate in 2019, he got more of the ball more often. Most notably, these metrics led to a .482 xwOBAcon, measuring his expected wOBA based on the quality of his contact. After a top-10 finish in that metric, Moncada’s .400+ BABIP begins to seem less extraterrestrial. More indicatively, Moncada (and Anderson, but more on him later) was just a better overall player in 2019. Finishing in the top 3 in 3rd base defense, his all-around improvement was highlighted by a 7+% K-rate decrease, a 200-point OPS increase, and the aforementioned jump in EV.
After leading the league in K’s in 2018, Moncada attacked the zone with a force that many White Sox fans thought would never come: he provided a +27 run-value, per Statcast’s Swing-Take Profile. While this cut into his walk rate, his eagle eye helped him to drive borderline pitches that he may have been punched out on just a season ago. His newfound consistency from both sides of the plate led to a beautifully diamond-shaped spray chart. Being a force at hitting both left and right-handed led to an inability for defenses to shift him effectively. Though his shift% increased from 2018, his production increase was able to quash its effects overall. As a hopeful White Sox fan, I hope that increased OBP at the top of the order in 2020 (Lu-Bob incoming) will further diminish the influence and occurrence of shifts against Yoan.
This brings us to Tim Anderson. A no-walk, extreme-athlete player, Anderson had a career year. His line of .335/.357/.508 led him to the MLB batting title and his bat flips, leadership, and character made him the face of the franchise. Like Moncada, Anderson probably won’t repeat his production next year. A .399 BABIP is unsustainable; however, in the same vein, the underlying measurements reflect a level of consistent production all Sox fans would gladly accept.
More specifically, Anderson’s expected stat line of .286/.324/.440, giving him an OPS north of .760, is individually a positive performance base. If Anderson can mitigate regression, possibly by increasing his minuscule ~3% walk rate, he’ll stay a dominant force in the White Sox lineup. New hitting coach hire Frank Menechino will look to catalyze Anderson’s eye and push him closer to stardom.
The moral of this story is that while unsustainable in the long run, the statlines produced by Moncada and Anderson reflect that perennial All-Stardom is not out of the question for either infielder. Moncada especially has proved to be a force in all facets of the game and looks to repeat on his career year alongside Madrigal, Robert, TA, and Abreu in 2020. Anderson similarly has now shown the offensive potential that Sox fans have been expecting since his callup. After marking the first homegrown offensive success the Sox have produced in nearly a decade, Anderson will look to build upon 2019 and continue to lead this young team.