I’ve often said that the hardest thing to evaluate in baseball is whether a player will hit. This is an inversion of an old Ted Williams line which is just as true for our purposes: the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball.
Mickey Moniak, last year’s top overall draft pick, is currently playing his first full season at Low-A Lakewood. His statistical production, such that we should be scouting the stat line after six weeks in A-ball, has been underwhelming: .285/.333/.339 through Tuesday’s play, walking in only 6.3 percent of plate appearances while striking out 21.1 percent of the time. Granted, this production is similar to but slightly better than Daniel Brito, whom I blew up a bit a few weeks ago in this space and is basically the same age as Moniak (Brito’s a handful of months older), but there’s an expectations game here. Moniak was the 1-1—I’ll address that elephant a little later—that ranked in everyone’s top sixty best prospects in baseball while getting plaudits for his extremely advanced hit tool and approach. Brito is a Venezuelan box of tools that didn’t rank in anyone’s Phillies top ten coming into the season.
I’ve seen nearly a dozen of Lakewood’s games, so I think I’m pretty familiar with what Mickey Moniak looks like right now beyond just the stat line, and it’s not great. His swing is showing as very handsy, and he pulls off the ball before contact, leading to a lot of off-balance hacks. He does have excellent barrel control given that, which is allowing him to hit the ball where they ain’t enough to stay afloat, but it’s mostly weak contact, and you’re going to score a lot of hits off Low-A pitchers and defenses that just aren’t going to happen at higher levels. He’s fairly patient, with a decent idea of what he wants to do at the plate, but he struggles with spin, especially down in and just out of the zone, and he doesn’t handle velocity as well as advertised either. He’s good in the outfield, and there’s some projection left, but there isn’t premium athleticism or physicality in the way that you might associate with a first-overall pick. At best, there need to be some tweaks, and at worst…well, he might just never consistently hit the ball with authority. I want to stress that these are all common issues amongst prep outfielders drafted high in their first full season of baseball, but here’s that elephant again: they’re not common problems amongst first-overall picks.
There are a lot of reasons a young man with Moniak’s background could struggle out of the gate. He’s a Southern California kid playing in a cold-weather climate for the first time. He reportedly added twenty pounds of muscle to a frame that’s still pretty skinny over the winter. The everyday grind of baseball is just as new to Moniak as it is his teammates who didn’t get over $6 million to sign, and A-ball is a real grind. Heck, Moniak’s highly-regarded teammate Sixto Sanchez is currently on the shelf with minor neck stiffness that the Phillies posited was the result of a long bus ride. Moniak can afford more creature comforts than most because of who he is and how rich the Phillies made him, but he’s not immune to pro ball being a huge life adjustment. We talk about those factors a lot for young Latin American players, but not as much for American high school players, and it can be nearly as big an adjustment for them as well.
Lingering over any discussion of Moniak is that the expectations for a first-overall pick high school outfielder are outlandishly high. Here’s a complete list of prep outfielders taken first overall since the Rule 4 draft was unified in 1987:
– Mickey Moniak
– Ken Griffey Jr.
Bryce Harper, Josh Hamilton, and Junior Griffey are three of the most physically gifted players of the last three decades, all winners of a Most Valuable Player award. Everyone will deny saying it because of how his MLB career progressed, but Delmon Young was considered a generational hitting talent; at Moniak’s age he hit .315 split between Double-A and Triple-A. Moniak, meanwhile, was generally rated as about the fifth-best prospect in his draft class before the draft, including by then-Baseball Prospectus writer Chris Crawford. We ranked him sixth among 2016 draftees on the preseason 101; however you slice it, there was a bit of consensus around and after the draft that Moniak wasn’t the top overall talent in the draft. And prep outfielders usually don’t go first overall without being The Man. Moniak did, of course, come with a huge savings to slot, over $3 million, which allowed the Phillies to sign a bunch of other overslot players like Kevin Gowdy, Cole Stobbe, JoJo Romero, and Cole Irvin.
Had Moniak been the fifth or sixth overall pick, nothing about my evaluation of him would’ve changed, but it’d be, well, pretty normal for a top ten outfielder. Kyle Tucker didn’t light the world on fire last year, and has improved a lot early this year. Alex Jackson is only getting it together just this year after a change-of-scenery trade. Austin Meadows and Clint Frazier have both had uneven points and scouting reports that weren’t always positive about the bat. Albert Almora morphed into a defense-first player. Bubba Starling has never hit. This is Moniak’s real peer group, not Bryce Harper and Ken Griffey, and he’s not really falling behind them yet.
Moniak is still a perfectly fine prospect, and these may be no more than the ups-and-downs of a non-linear prospect development cycle—something that has a greater microscope on it than at any point in baseball history thanks to the amount of coverage the minors now get. Moniak might play back to the old reports on his hit tool and approach down the road. For now, we have to write what we see, and it isn’t looking great today. In a few months, who knows?