As spring training draws to a close, we have discovered a most surprising source of optimism: McKenzie Matthew Moniak. Mac, M-cubed, or Mickey-Mo if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Far from the focal symbol of Matt Klentak’s failures, Moniak has become for parts of the fanbase the answer to the Phillies’ question at centerfield. Like Cinderella, he’s arrived at the ball and caught the eye of the prince.
Despite the excitement, the clock has already struck midnight. Moniak has been optioned to triple-A; so, he won’t be starting the season on the active roster (barring a slew of injuries). But that doesn’t mean he’s turning back into a pumpkin.* During spring training, he’s done as much as a player can do to justify all the cliches that were heaped upon him when he arrived in camp. He’s in the best shape of his life. He looks more hitterish. He’s not listening to all the haters. He’s taking it one at-bat at a time. Sure. To the tune of .273/.385/.727.
*Literary Pet Peeve (read at your own risk): This cliche is one of those allusions that gets the source material entirely wrong. The magic revealed Cinderella’s true character whereas her “real” appearance concealed it through her step-mother’s oppressive contrivances. ‘Turning back into a pumpkin’ shouldn’t mean going back to one’s natural state. It should mean going back to being oppressed, at least in so far as the pumpkin is a stand-in for Cinderella.
To be fair, Moniak absolutely is stronger. His sudden improvement this spring is undergirded by a significant increase in his exit velocity. In a very limited sample from 2020 Moniak averaged 88 mph off his bat. That matches scouting reports about his swing authority from Fangraphs and Baseball America. And it puts him at around MLB average. An average EV isn’t bad obviously. But when combined with a deeply negative launch angle, it will not work to get a merely average runner on base much and certainly won’t generate many extra bases. At camp Moniak added 2 mph to his EV. He jumped from merely average to comparable to the likes of Anthony Rendon, Manny Machado, and Trea Turner. It is much harder to find below average hitters at 90 mph EV than at 88 mph. Moniak has translated that added strength into harder hit balls and can now get more out of his swings.
Not only does that give him more power, it compensates for an approach that, while improving, is still not ideal. When Moniak was drafted, his carrying tool was supposed to be his hit tool. His ability to get the bat-head to the ball, it was thought, would make him a high average on-base guy that would compensate for a lack of walks and homers. But that skill led him astray as a young player. As an amateur he could swing freely and hit everything. The higher he climbed in pro ball the worse that approach did for him. His K-rates increased gradually while his walk-rates held mostly steady and his BABIPs trended downward. In the last couple years we have seen some indication that his selectivity has improved and that he’s learning when to deploy his heat-seeking hands and when to keep them in reserve. At Reading, his walk rate jumped up a couple points although it was still well below average. Last season he walked four times (22%) in very limited plate appearances. But it is hard to read much into such a small sample. With added power, at least, the extra bases will counterbalance the empty ABs.
In 2021 Moniak will face his final test as a prospect. He’ll start the season at Lehigh Valley with the hopes of forcing the Phillies to call him up to play in the outfield everyday. Yet, despite our optimism, it is possible that he flounders against the incrementally harder competition at triple-A. According to Baseball Reference, Moniak has faced on average a double-A quality of competition during spring training. On the one hand that’s on the high end of spring training averages. On the other, it suggests Moniak still has something to prove against better competition. Triple-A pitchers have more refined arsenals, better command, and are just smarter than their double-A counterparts. Baseball history is littered with batters who have had much more success in the minors than Moniak and, nevertheless, floundered at triple-A. Even if he maintains his strength in games, his approach might drag him back down so that he never proves better than the fourth or fifth outfielder that scouts projected he would become coming into this season. Too much swing and not enough sting will sink his rise faster than a blow-up dinghy full of porcupines.
That, however, is not the direction he’s been trending. Even dating back to his time at the alternate site last season, Phillies personnel have been chattering about his progress. They were so pleased with his improvement last season that he saw some big league action. Granted, he did not do well in that action, especially on defense (another reason some time at triple-A will help). But his slash line underestimated the quality of the contact he made. And by all reports his struggles didn’t deter his confidence. If he continues to slam balls into the outfield through the first two months of the IronPig’s season, we can expect him to take a carriage ride down 22 an 476, slip on that glass cleat,* and maybe even establish himself as an everyday outfielder for the next half-decade at least.
*Only after writing that phrase did I first wonder why Cinderella’s slipper is made of glass. GLASS! Here’s an essay if you’re as perplexed as I am.