Sam Mellinger

Adalberto Mondesi and the Royals’ hope

The young man is in that precarious place between flash and stardom, the wide open space into which many before him have disappeared and some have risen. If the men building the Royals are right, Adalberto Mondesi will be the biggest star of the next championship push.

That’s a bold bet, for reasons we’ll get to here, but one made on more than simply physical gifts as complete and outrageous as anyone who currently plays baseball for a living.

That bet is made for moments like 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, some 17 hours after a four-hit game, Mondesi wearing a grey hoodie and sweating through one of the most mundane hitting drills possible — two-strike practice, against a machine, muscle memory created in front of a coach or two and virtually nobody else.

“Shortening up, punching the ball the other way,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He’s working really, really hard, and it’s just paying off for him.”

The Royals have won 12 of 18, a late push that will likely avoid the worst season in franchise history. With seven wins in their final 16 games the record book will not judge this group as harshly as the 2005 disaster that gave Jose Lima 32 starts despite a 6.99 ERA, broke Tony Pena, and inspired Buddy Bell to promise, “I’ll never say it can’t get worse.”

But the race to avoid the bottom is mere semantics, because for some time now everyone involved has understood what’s happening. The purpose of this season is to ensure that rock bottom is spoken of in the past tense, that as the team cuts payroll and continues to build around players currently in the farm system, that results start to show in the standings and not just in highlights.

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In some important and big-picture ways, this team is in worse shape than 2006, but it should be said that the last month or two have provided reasons for hope. Brad Keller is missing more bats, and here are the last five rookies to match his current 127 1/3 innings and 3.04 ERA — Jacob deGrom, Collin McHugh, Matt Shoemaker, Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Fernandez and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Ryan O’Hearn’s power is intruding. Same with Brett Phillips’ defense and energy, Hunter Dozier’s recent path, Jorge Lopez’s four-pitch toolbox, Jakob Junis’ slider, and Wily Peralta’s fastball.

But Mondesi is how this team’s story will be told, and more than anyone else the man around whom the franchise’s next five years revolve. That line about him being as talented as anyone in baseball is not some sports writer’s hyperbole to keep you reading. That’s the description from several scouts who make such judgments for a living.

“I’m trying to even think of a comparison,” Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield said. “He’s faster than everybody. He’s got as much pop as anybody. His arm is as strong as anybody. His glove is as good as anybody. So, yeah. That’s a pretty accurate statement: He’s the most talented player in the game right now. And you look at some of the players in the game, that’s high praise.”

They talk about an arm that’s thrown baseballs clocked well over 90 mph, the quickness to make short choppers into easy outs on defense, and the timing to make leaping catches. Some of this moves beyond opinion, and provable with evidence.

His fourth hit on Wednesday was a cleanly fielded ball back to the pitcher, which is an absurd statement, even if he wasn’t hitting from the right side. He appeared to make it from home to first in 3.7 seconds, which would be among the fastest recorded by a right-handed hitter.

Royals first-base coach Mitch Maier said he’s clocked Mondesi at 3.5 seconds, on a drag bunt from the left side.

“He can beat you in every way there is to beat you in a baseball game,” Maier said.

MLB’s Statcast has recorded him at 34.6 feet per second, and his average sprint speed of 30.0 feet per second ranks seventh. He has 22 steals in 58 games, which would be a pace for 57 steals in 150 games, a mark no American League player has reached since 2010. He is the only man to steal off Indians ace Corey Kluber this season.

Of the players ahead of Mondesi in Statcast’s speed measurements, none have a better home-run rate, and none have matched the 437 foot home run he hit into Kauffman Stadium’s left field fountains.

So, you could say he’s more powerful than the few who might be faster, and he’s faster than those who might be more powerful.

But the point is not about physical gifts. Mondesi has long since passed the test of whether he’s talented enough, and besides, that’s never been the sole determinant factor of baseball stardom.

Mondesi has struck out 55 times and walked just seven. That would be the fifth-worst ratio of any full season by any big-leaguer this century. According to data from FanGraphs, Mondesi swings at 38.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That would be among the 20 worst rates in baseball. What’s worse, he makes contact on just 45.6 percent of those swings — that would be the worst in baseball.

“If I take those bad pitches, I’m going to have a good pitch to hit,” Mondesi said. “Then, just don’t miss it. That’s a big part, recognizing the bad pitches and then get a good one to hit.”

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Internally, the Royals believe he can and will improve with this. Some in the front office believe he could become dramatically better. They see aptitude, athleticism, and good hands.

Mondesi has long arms, which means a longer swing and more difficulty in making contact, and he had four times as many strikeouts as walks in the minors. But he’s still just 23 years old, and for the first time is being pushed to study how pitchers are attacking him. One scout recently said Mondesi doesn’t always appear to have a plan — he’s not simplifying by looking fastball, for instance, or for a certain part of the strike zone.

“Just something as simple as that,” the scout said. “Give him some help.”

If you’re willing to look, you can find encouragement. He walked just twice in his first 36 games, and five times in his last 22. This comes with a flashing neon warning sign about small sample sizes, but he’s hitting .392 with a .667 slugging percentage since Aug. 25.

The Royals aren’t going to call him arrived, but they like that the success is backed by work. They’ve seen prospects with talent assume that’s all they needed. Maybe that’s been part of it with Mondesi in the past, too, and the Royals have to accept some of the blame — they promoted him to the big leagues before he was ready, and made him their everyday second baseman when Merrifield was the better player.

But they are here now, together, a fantastically talented player willing to work for success and a franchise that desperately needs him to find it.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.