The first two weeks of the 2013 season have been miserable for Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.
In 42 plate appearances, he's hitting just .158/.238/.211 with two extra base hits and two runs. He's hit in the heart of the order for the Royals and has cashed in just one of 27 base runners. Awful. Dreadful. Francoeurian. Choose your negative adjective. They all fit.
It's still about small sample sizes, but that doesn't prevent us from examining the root of Moustakas' issues at the plate.
Moustakas has seen a first pitch strike in 25 of his 38 plate appearances (not including the four plate appearances where he's put the first pitch he's seen into play.) That means in just under 70 percent of his plate appearances, he's handing the advantage to the pitcher immediately. When he starts in that 0-1 hole, he's collected just one hit all season. To his credit, he has battled for four walks in that situation. His line after seeing a first pitch strike is .043/.120/.043.
We are dealing with small samples here. Pick a split, any split, and Moustakas is struggling. Look at the converse of the first pitch strike - a first pitch ball - and Moose is hitting just .182/.308/.273. Yuck. The reason I point out the first pitch strike as a possible issue for Moustakas is because he's about 10 percent higher than league average than for this statistical category. The rest of his plate discipline rates fall in line with either league or career averages.
For example, Moustakas is swinging at 30 percent of the pitches he sees outside of the zone. That's about six percent below his career average and about two percent worse than the league average. His 83 percent contact rate is above average and his eight percent swinging strike rate is below average. He's whiffed just six times which is about the number we would expect for his first 42 plate appearances.
But the contact... Moustakas has put 32 balls in play in the first two weeks of the season. Of those, 21 have been classified as fly balls. Moose has always had projectable power, so we would expect him to put more balls in the air than on the ground. That's been his hitting modus operandi since landing in the big leagues in 2011. Except his small sample numbers are in the extreme. Here are his ground ball to fly ball ratios since his rookie season:
2011 - 0.93
2012 - 0.68
2013 - 0.33
Part of the reason for the skewed fly ball numbers is because when he does get the ball in the air, he's not making solid contact and hitting the ball on the line. His line drive rate is just 12 percent. Only four of the balls he's put in play have been classified as line drives. He's fouled out six times.
Here is Moustakas's spray chart. WARNING: Graphic and disturbing imagery.
In his 42 plate appearances, Moustakas has just two extra base hits - both doubles. One double came in the first pitch of a plate appearance. His other double came on a 2-0 pitch. Moose could use a few favorable counts to try to get into a groove, but pitchers are immediately putting him on the defensive.
We can explain some of this as small sample size and that would be true. Except if I may inject an arbitrary end point, since July 1, Moustakas is hitting .214/.261/.340. That covers 87 games and 332 at bats.
So what do the Royals do with their third baseman? They can send him out and use Miguel Tejada and Elliot Johnson. That's not an ideal solution, but having to send out a piece of the heart of your lineup isn't an ideal solution either. Still, something needs to be done. If the Royals are serious about contending this year, they can't afford to wait.