I'm back for the first time in a while, and I'm tackling almost everyone's favorite topic: lineup construction! Recycled White Sox manager Tony La Russa has some interesting choices to make from a lineup perspective, especially in the wake of the devastating injury to Eloy Jimenez. Juggling lineup positioning has always been a hot-button issue for the White Sox fan base. I'm not sure 2021 will be any different, but I think La Russa's perspective on things is one I hadn't previously considered, so I will dive into that here.
Earlier in the spring, La Russa stated he likes having a switch hitter in the cleanup spot, and he believed Moncada was a good fit for the White Sox four-hole because he “has the ability to rise to the occasion, and that’s what you look for a lot in the middle of the lineup.”
I hadn't given previous consideration to the idea of how a switch hitter at the cleanup spot could impact the decision-making of opposing managers, but I think it's an interesting angle to consider particularly given that another switch-hitter in Yasmani Grandal will likely follow Moncada in the lineup due to Jimenez's injury. Moncada being flanked by reigning MVP, Jose Abreu, and the aforementioned Grandal is going to force opposing managers to pick their poison, so to speak, in high-leverage, late-game scenarios.
The idea of Moncada in the cleanup spot is one that I think most White Sox fans weren't keen on previously, believing that his combination of power and patience was ideally suited for the two-hole in the lineup. At times, we have seen Moncada have a passivity to his plate approach, which is something one would think isn't well-suited for the cleanup role considering that job requires him to be a run producer. We saw this on display again in 2020, but I firmly believe it was a function of the young Cuban not fully trusting himself and his body as he was dealing with the after-effects of COVID-19.
The concept of Moncada hitting between Abreu and Grandal presents an interesting wrinkle, however. I believe Moncada will have the opportunity to do plenty of damage in 2021 with runners on base, thanks to the likes of Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, and even Adam Eaton (despite what some may believe, he may not be done as a functional baseball player) being on the bases in front of him.
The one thing I'm going to be watching is Moncada's approach in these situations. If he works himself into 2-0, 3-1 counts and looks to inflict damage on the baseball, I believe he will thrive. He has proven that he has strong enough pitch recognition skills to get himself into these counts, and when he does he can be a force. If he is committed to being selectively aggressive and looks to drive the ball with authority when in the position to do so, I think La Russa will have proven again why he is indeed a Hall of Fame baseball person. On the flip side, if we see the passive Moncada that is looking to simply just work counts and put himself at the mercy of home plate umpires, it could be a very frustrating experience.
Moncada has shown us that he has all the tools to be a franchise cornerstone, superstar-type player. Perhaps this shift to the cleanup spot with a renewed focus could reinvigorate the young third baseman. Throughout the course of his managerial career, La Russa has challenged different players and it looks as though this is the challenge he is placing in front of Yoan Moncada. We all know he has the tools to rise to the occasion, and if he does so this offense will be really fun to watch even without Eloy Jimenez.
Switch It Up
An Abreu-Moncada-Grandal middle of the order has the potential to be a nightmare for American League managers in 2021. Patricularly in late-game situations when managing the bullpen comes into play, White Sox opponents will have difficult choices to make regarding handedness and the infamous three-batter minimum rule. Navigating against this trio of hitters will prove to be a painstaking task, especially if Moncada performs near the level he did in 2019. Having back-to-back switch hitters in the four- and five-spots is going to open itself up to a lot of second-guessing by opposing teams and fans.
Will managers choose to go with right-handed relievers in an attempt to "neutralize" Jose Abreu? Abreu touts a career 129 wRC+ against RHP, but that figure has dipped to a still respectable 115 wRC+ since the beginning of the 2018 season. A lot was made on the Twitter machine about Abreu's decline against righties heading into last year (yours truly included), so what did Abreu do? Just put up his best career performance against righties with a 175 wRC+, buoyed by a .633 SLG%. Did actually having a representative lineup around him do the trick in 2020 and will it carry forward? You can certainly make that strong case.
If managers do decide to use righties to attack this middle of the order, they are opening themselves up to being hurt by Moncada, who for his career sports a 119 wRC+ and has displayed far more power from the left side of the plate. By the way, he is followed by Grandal, who has a career 118 wRC+ against righties.
Should the opposition look to use southpaws to go after the middle of this lineup, they could again be left in a world of hurt. Yes, Moncada has fared worse against LHP throughout his career (.247/.318/.384). However, since the start of the 2019 season, he has put up a 118 wRC+ from the right side. That number was elevated in 2020 due to his 19.6% BB rate in the limited sample, but his increased selectivity from this side historically could set up Grandal to bring the hammer down. For his career, Grandal has been pretty balanced regardless of handedness (118 wRC+ against RHP vs. 115 wRC+ against LHP). However, since the beginning of the 2018 season, the switch-hitting catcher is actually inflicting more damage against southpaws. Since that time, he's put up a 127 WRC+ against lefties with increased power production when compared to a 120 wRC+ against righties.
In the end, Tony La Russa's decision to utilize Moncada in the cleanup spot could prove to be a genius move. The matchup problems created by having Moncada in this spot -- flanked by the reigning MVP and another switch-hitter -- are enough to make your head spin. If he is fully functional and displays the selective aggressiveness I know I personally want to see from him, Moncada could be in for a monster 2021 season. Opposing pitchers and managers will have a hard time navigating this portion of the lineup. If Moncada gets himself into hitter's counts consistently and looks to unload on balls, the White Sox may be able to soften the blow of Eloy Jimenez's absence, to an extent.