Taking a Deeper Look at Mike Moustakas's Struggles

Mike Moustakas has not gotten off to the start of his career many hoped he would, but the slow start many had expected. Moose had a bit of a reputation in the minors about having slow starts after a promotion, and many expected the trend to continue in the majors. In 146 plate appearances, Moustakas is sporting a horrendous .195/.248/.248 triple slash line, which is good for a wRC+ of 35. In spite of these terrible numbers, I have not been able to shake the feeling that Moose has actually been better at certain areas of the game than I thought he would, such as patience. Some of his struggles have been bad luck, a .216 BABIP is really low. Hitters do have some control over their BABIP, and I was curios how much of Moose's struggles could be attributed to something he was doing (and how serious they were). So I dug deeper and see if the numbers and graphs backed up my (very) amateur scouting eye.

In spite of the fact that he is currently showing zero ability to make solid contact with the ball, Moustakas is still walking at a similar pace to the pace he drew walks in the minors. His walk rate is at 6.2%, which is below the league average of 8.2% but is not a horrible number. He is also not striking out a lot, his K% is at 12.3%, compared to a league-average of 18.4%. His swinging strike percentage is also lower than league average, he has whiffed at 7.4% of strikes that he has seen, compared to a 8.5% league-average. So by these plate discipline measures, the Royals third baseman appears to be doing just fine.

His swing percentages begin to show some of the problems Moustakas has had this season. His outside the zone swing percentage is a little higher than league average: 35.3% compared to 30%. His inside the zone swing percentage, however, is substantially higher than the major league average. Mike swings at about 77.8% of pitches inside the strike zone, compared to 64.9% league average. Overall, he swings at pitches 52.9% of the time, compared to a league average of 46%. Moose makes fantastic contact when he swings the bat; his contact percentage of 86% is six percentage points higher than the league average. His high swing percentage is likely part of the reason why Moustakas has struggled since being called up.

A high swing percentage is problematic because even if a pitch is in the strike zone, it is not necessarily a good pitch to hit. Looking at the Pitch F/X data of pitches Moose has swung at reveals what pitches he is having problems laying off of. First, we will look at all of the pitches he swung at in July, and all of the pitches he's laying off of. (all images from texasleaguers.com)

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Overall, the Pitch F/X data indicates that he has done a decent job of identifying if a pitch is inside or outside the strike zone. His main weakness out of the strike zone appears to be in the dirt, followed by pitches above the letters. He does a much better job laying off pitches off the outside or inside of the plate. When we look at specific pitches inside the strike zone, we begin to see why he has had some struggles. His recognition of four-seam fastballs is solid, as is expected.

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Moose swings at mostly fastballs up in the strike zone and in the middle of the plate, which is where you want a hitter swinging at pitches. If we take a look at some of the breaking pitches, we begin to see pitches Moose has swung at in the strike zone that he shouldn't be. This is a graph of the sliders Moustakas has seen in July.

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Out of the sixteen sliders Mike swung at, I would guess that eight were good pitches to swing at, and eight were not. Most of those pitches low and outside are either hard sliders from lefties, or good backdoor sliders from righties. These are tough pitches to hit, and will normally result in outs. Since Moose is doing such a good job making contact, he likely is weakly fouling off or rolling over these pitches, resulting in high amounts of outs. When you have two strikes, you should try to foul off all the tough pitches and wait for the good ones. Mike appears to be swinging at many of these tough pitches even when he does not have two strikes, which would result in less pitches thrown and a decrease in a chance for the pitcher to make a mistake. Looking at his Pitch F/X numbers for changeups and curveballs show a similar problem of swinging against tough pitches.

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Over half of the changeups swung at were pitches Moose had little chance to hit effectively, and only two, maybe three of the curveballs look like pitches a hitter should swing at. He also look susceptible to chase those pitches low and out of the strike zone.  Again, Mike probably had to swing at some of these pitches because he had two strikes on him; he has also swung at bad pitches in favorable counts and made contact with them, forcing weak groundouts or popouts. This partially explains why Moustakas partially has a low BABIP and triple slash line.

I do not know how much Mike's pitch selection has negatively affected his hitting, but I will point out the painfully obvious and claim that if Moose swings at more hittable pitches, he will hit better. I also think that Mike swinging and making contact with too many pitches, especially in the strike zone, is not the worst problem to have. If I were his coach, I would tell him something like this: "Don't worry about the tough pitches kid, just lay off of them unless you have two strikes. You do a great job of making contact, and you can foul them off if they throw them with two strikes. Just look for your pitch at the plate, and take advantage of it if the pitcher makes a mistake." If Moose starts getting more selective at the plate, he will likely start striking out more. That would be fine in this situation, because he would also see more pitches and likely get better pitches to hit. His high contact percentage that he has shown should keep him from striking out an astronomical amount if he becomes more selective in the zone, and consistently swinging at better pitches would help unleash the third baseman's potential. Moose's problems look very fixable and his pitch selection should get better as he becomes more comfortable in the major leagues.

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