Kris Bryant, Aaron Judge show potential paths to success for strikeout-heavy Yoan Moncada

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USA TODAY

Kris Bryant, Aaron Judge show potential paths to success for strikeout-heavy Yoan Moncada

White Sox fans are justifiably concerned by Yoan Moncada's league-leading number of strikeouts.

Moncada carried big expectations into this season after earning the title of No. 1 prospect in baseball last year. He hasn't lived up to those expectations. But the struggles Moncada has dealt with this season don't at all etch in stone what kind of career he'll have in the long term.

Moncada's just 23 years old, and part of the reason there have been so many outside complaints about his season is that he's under the microscope in this rebuilding process. As an early arriver to the South Side, he gets looked at closely on a daily basis while many of the other highly touted youngsters in the organization are going through their developments in the minor leagues. And with the team where it is in its rebuilding effort, Moncada is going through certain things at the big league level that, if the White Sox were in a different spot, he might be experiencing in the minors.

But while Moncada is on pace to break Major League Baseball's single-season strikeout record, it's not at all the end of the world. See above for several reasons why. But there's another good one that's been discussed before but perhaps warrants a closer look, particularly after Moncada added two more strikeouts to his total in Monday night's loss to the Detroit Tigers. (He's up to 169 on the campaign and on pace to strike out 236 times.)

For fans expecting Moncada to arrive in the big leagues and display complete offensive mastery at the plate, just look to two of baseball's biggest stars, two guys who also piled up big strikeout numbers in rookie seasons that ended in Rookie of the Year awards, for examples of how Moncada's path can still end in plenty of major league success.

Kris Bryant struck out 199 times in 2015 to lead the National League and set the Cubs' single-season record. That's striking out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances. It's also a total that currently stands as the 11th highest in baseball history. But Bryant has since seen those strikeout numbers drop dramatically, a possibility for Moncada as time wears on considering the rave reviews he gets from manager Rick Renteria and others when it comes to his understanding of the strike zone.

Bryant saw his strikeouts drop from 199 in his rookie season to 154 in 2016, a season in which he had 49 more plate appearances than he did in the year prior. Last season, his strikeout total plummeted to 128 (and his walks climbed to a career-best 95) in just 15 more plate appearances than he had in 2015. This season, Bryant has been plagued by significant injuries, but for what it's worth, he's got 75 strikeouts in 358 plate appearances, a strikeout rate 10 percent lower than the one from his rookie season.

So while Bryant and Moncada are different players, there's recent precedent — and just up the Red Line, at that — for a player striking out a ton during his rookie season only to consistently see those strikeouts decrease as time goes on. Remember that this is only Moncada's first full season in the majors. Time and experience can change an awful lot.

Then there's Aaron Judge. Last season, the New York Yankees slugger struck out 208 times, the sixth-highest total in baseball history. Like Bryant did in his rookie season, Judge struck out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances. But unlike Bryant, Judge is striking out at a similar rate this season. Judge is a different kind of player than Bryant, of course, more of a slugger with the kind of power you see elsewhere among baseball's all-time single-season strikeout leaders: your Mark Reynoldses, your Adam Dunns, your Chris Davises, your Ryan Howards. Of course, Judge also walks a ton, something some of those guys did/do, too. Judge led baseball with his 208 punchouts last season, but he also led the American League with 127 walks. Judge ranks in among the league leaders again this season, with 68 walks.

Again, we'll go back to the praise for and confidence in Moncada's eye at the plate. He's got 50 walks in this strikeout-heavy season. As his skills at the dish are honed further, perhaps he could follow a path more similar to Judge's than Bryant's, where his strikeout numbers stay high but so, too, do his walk numbers.

Now, these are obviously not perfect comparisons. Bryant was an NL MVP a year after he was the NL's Rookie of the Year. Judge was the AL's Rookie of the Year a year ago and finished second in MVP voting. Moncada has other statistical areas of concern besides strikeouts: He's slashing .221/.304/.398 after Monday's loss in Motown, numbers that don't come close to the Rookie of the Year stats that Bryant and Judge put up in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

But these are examples of paths to success for players who hit the big leagues only to strike out and strike out a lot. There's little way of knowing if Moncada will be able to achieve the stardom those two have accomplished. But the big strikeout total doesn't preclude him from doing so.

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

Who are the 2018 Cubs?

It's mid-August, there's only seven weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs and yet the Cubs still don't have an identity they can hang their hats on.

Maybe they are just a team with an underachieving rotation, an inconsistent offense, a bullpen that is fantastic when rested and an elite defense.
 
Yet they maintain there's more in the tank and with a roster this talented and track records this extensive, it's easy to believe them. 

But when will that show up on a regular basis?

Mind you, the Cubs aren't complaining where they're at.

They woke up Monday morning with the best record in the National League by three games and the peace that no matter what happens in a two-game series with the Brewers this week at Wrigley Field, they'll head to Pittsburgh Thursday at least a game up in the division.

Of course, where would the Cubs be right now without David Bote's ninth-inning heroics Sunday night or against the Diamondbacks two weeks ago? Fortunately for the Cubs, that's an alternate universe they don't have to think about.

They'll take this current position, of course. Especially with the two biggest free agent additions of the offseason — Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish — combining to throw just 70.2 innings to date plus a balky shoulder that has put Kris Bryant on the shelf for nearly two months (assuming he returns late August or early September) and has sapped the power of the 2016 NL MVP even when he has been healthy enough to suit up. And don't forget Carl Edwards Jr. — the team's second-most important reliever — also missed time (nearly five weeks) and has appeared in just 39 games.

"I don't take anything for granted," Joe Maddon said. "The Cardinals are playing a whole lot better, the Pirates have done a nice job, Milwaukee's not going away. I get all that. But at the end of the day — and this has been my mantra forever — worry about the Cubs. Worry about you guys.

"We just gotta play our game and if we do that, that stuff becomes secondary at every stop, whether it's Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Cubs do what they're supposed to do, that other stuff becomes moot. 

"That's about getting the rotation back where we think they can be. That's about getting our offense percolating on all cylinders again while we continue to play this defense. If we could somehow get KB, Darvish and Morrow back for that stretch run, my god, you can't get better acquisitions at the end of the year.

"That's all a possibility, but I don't count on it. I'm not waiting for that day to happen. In the meantime, you work with what you got and try to make that as best you can."

What Maddon has is a team that is 13-11 with a -21 run differential since the All-Star Break — obviously not the stuff of a championship team across nearly a month's worth of a sample size.

Digging deeper, however, and you see that the Cubs have been on the wrong end of several blowouts including the 18-5 loss to the Cardinals July 20 and the 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Royals last week. Of the Cubs' 13 second-half wins, 9 have come by three runs or less, including 6 one-run victories.

But the concerns are there, particularly with making sure the rotation helps pick up the slack down the stretch and reduce the stress on an already-taxed bullpen.

Cubs pitchers have combined to throw just 44 pitches and get 7 outs after the seventh inning all season — all of which can be credited to Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery and now Cole Hamels have yet to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this year (though, obviously, Hamels has been fantastic in a small sample size and Montgomery saved the rotation when Darvish went down months ago).

Once the Cubs signed Darvish in February, there were many pundits across the game that believed this could be the top starting staff in baseball behind only the Houston Astros.

"Remember I thought in spring training, this had a chance to be THE best rotation we've had here," Maddon said. "We've had some pretty good ones. And it just hasn't gotten to that point yet, but I still believe that it can, in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten the normal innings out of them."

The rotation is underperforming, but this has been by far the deepest stable of relief pitchers Maddon has had to work with in Chicago.

"You gotta give these bullpen guys a ton of credit and the depth that is organization has built," Maddon said. "The guys that have come up for cameos have contributed greatly to this moment.

"I've often talked about the bullpen — you gotta have that to win a championship and these guys are demonstrating that right now. And part of that is to not beat 'em up."

The Cubs still rank atop the National League in many offensive categories — including runs scored, OPS and on-base percentage — but anybody who's watched this team all year knows they are prone to rather extreme highs and lows.

Since the All-Star Break, it's mostly been at a low, contributing to that suboptimal run differential.

"Offensively, I don't see some of our guys at their normal levels," Maddon said. "I know we got this wonderful run differential [on the season] and we lead the league in runs scored, but how do you maintain that? That's my biggest concern."

Beyond Javy Baez's MVP campaign and the resurgence of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the only thing that has been working offensively of late is Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot.

Maddon tossed the face of the franchise atop the order a month ago and hasn't moved him out — for good reason. In 27 starts at leadoff, Rizzo is slashing .347/.446/.604, good for a 1.050 OPS. 

The rest of the lineup behind him has gone through its ups and downs lately, but that's also the nature of the game, especially in this day and age with strikeouts up and basehits down.

For perspective, a Phillies team that has been challenging for the NL East all season has experienced similar head-scratching offensive games on a regular basis:

A lot can change in Major League Baseball in the span of a few weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, who considered Bote to be big part of this team in 2018 or beyond? When the Cubs traded for Hamels, they were hoping he could give them solid innings. Did anybody predict this level of success from the 34-year-old southpaw so soon?

With seven weeks left until postseason baseball, rest assured — there are still plenty of ups and downs coming for the Cubs.

Outsiders — fans and media — often seesaw with those ebbs and flows for many reasons, but the best one is this: It's simply no fun if you don't allow yourself to get completely caught up with moments like Bote's ultimate grand slam or Hamels' Rejuvenation Tour that has only lasted three starts.

But even if those outsiders are willing to ride that roller coaster even a little bit, the Cubs certainly won't inside the clubhouse.

"Never a good time to ride the roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyways."

Kris Bryant is pain-free and has no doubt he'll return to Cubs in 2018

Kris Bryant is pain-free and has no doubt he'll return to Cubs in 2018

Breathe easy, Cubs fans. Grab another cold drink, put your feet up and soak in the sun — there's good news on the Kris Bryant front.

Before a picture-perfect afternoon game against the Nationals at Wrigley Field Saturday, Bryant took some swings and ground balls and reported zero pain in his left shoulder.

"I should be [feeling better] — I've had some time off and really not doing too much," he said. "Just keeping my legs in shape, but yeah, I feel a lot better."

Bryant is only taking dry swings (with no baseball) and hitting a little off a batting tee, but it's a start.

"Nothing super crazy, but it's nice to be able to pick up a bat," he said. "Obviously still kinda going a little slow, but seems to be the smart thing to do."

The Cubs are making sure they won't rush Bryant back this time and will allow the left shoulder to be 100 percent before inserting the 2016 NL MVP back into the lineup.

The postseason is only about seven weeks away, but Bryant has no doubt he'll make it back in time to contribute this year.

"Yeah, absolutely. I feel confident [I'll be back]," he said. "It would be pretty silly if I wasn't, just in my mind. I'm totally confident that I'll be back."

Bryant injured the shoulder in late May on a slide and believes he aggravated it by taking too many swings to try to bust out of a slump. That led to a few weeks on the shelf, missing games from June 23 to July 10.

He came back for 10 games before again hurting his shoulder on a swing against the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 23. He hasn't played since then and this weekend is the first time he's picked up a bat in almost three weeks.

There is no set plan for Bryant or timetable for when he will return and while he's anxious to get back, he acknowledges things are moving in the right direction.

And no pain in the shoulder is as good a sign as any at the moment.

"Obviously means what we're doing is working and the right thing," Bryant said. "Hopefully it makes me a better player, knowing that there's things that I need to do to maintain my body and hopefully it's making me stronger for it.

"As much as it stinks to be on the DL, I see it as a win for me."

Bryant is only 26, but he has realized that he needs to back off with his pregame and off-day routine, finding a way to limit the high-intensity swings until the game. 

He felt like he was taking too many "game-like swings" in the batting cage and during BP on the field, so moving forward in his career, he'll lighten that load.

Anthony Rizzo has come to the same conclusion over the last couple years as he's dealt with an episode of back issues at some point during the course of each season.

It's a lesson learned the hard way for Bryant.

"It was good for me to realize that," he said. "You can't keep going every day and just swinging and swinging and swinging because things might bark at you sometimes. And that's kinda what happened.

"It's good for me to see early on in my career that it's nice to change some things here and there so that you can play [longer]. I want to play until I'm 40."

Bryant hasn't made any major changes or adjustments to his swing, but through this process, he has understood the value of getting back to having a smooth follow-through to avoid the wear and tear on his shoulder.

After all, Bryce Harper calls Bryant "Silk" because of how smooth and fluid the Cubs superstar is on the field.

"Just be conscious of my workload and the violence of a finish rather than me being smooth and easy with it, especially in practice," Bryant said. "So that's kinda what our focus is."