Coming into 2014, Mike Moustakas was in the best shape of his life. No, not just physical shape. Moustakas got married, spent a month in Venezuela with ex-hitting instructor Pedro Grifol, and absolutely tore the cover off the ball in spring training, hitting .429/.522/.768 with 4 home runs. This was to be the Year of the Moose. He was rejuvenated, ready to dominate.
Unfortunately for Moustakas, he is not Alex Gordon. Instead of becoming the great third baseman he was supposed to be, Moustakas has put up a paltry 0.1 fWAR in 204 PA. Like a villain in a Saturday morning cartoon, the hitting ability that Moose showcased in the minor leagues keeps slipping away week after week. Every so often, a glimmer of hope appears, and Moose hits a couple doubles or a go-ahead home run. The glimmer is quickly obscured by a permeating cloud cover that has removed the sparkle from Moustakas' once clear prospect shine.
This year, Moustakas is hitting .175/.246/.355, good for a 63 wRC+. His career line, one game away from reaching 1700 plate appearances, is a slightly better .236/..289/.381, or an 81 wRC+. Though he plays good defense, only an elite defender and baserunner can make up for that anemic of an offense, and Moustakas is neither.
The worst part? This is the new and improved Mike Moustakas. This will be the best that the Royals will ever get.
In the minors, Moustakas, predictably for a second overall pick, excelled. His overall line in 6 seasons was .284/.338/.504 with 85 HR, capped by a brilliant 2010 campaign where Moose smashed and blasted his way to a .322/.369/.630 line with 36 HR across AA and AAA.
In hindsight, there are some red flags in this data. As a power hitter, his average is of secondary importance, but one would think an excellent top prospect could hit better than .284 against minor league teams, where defensive skill is lower and BABIP is higher than in the majors. Also, one might expect more walks from a power hitter, and Moustakas posted only a 6.9 BB%. Those two things, combined with a very good but not elite .226 ISO, might have suggested struggles in the majors.
At the highest level of professional baseball in the world, the minor flaws Moustakas exhibited in the minor leages were exacerbated. His career average of .236 shows that his somewhat disappointing average in the minors showed a real problem, while his 6.5% career walk rate and .145 ISO are not nearly enough to salvage it. For some players, like Salvador Perez, minor league numbers don't always suggest MLB performance. For Moustakas, these numbers were a bad omen.
This year, Moustakas was presented as someone who had worked hard to improve his game. The raw overall numbers don't spell that out--he's hitting 37% below league average and would be lucky if he got to 0.3 fWAR considering his current pace--but those numbers don't tell the entire truth. The truth is that Moustakas has improved; this version of Moustakas is almost exactly the one that the Royals want. Here's why:
To summarize: 2014 Moustakas is walking more while striking out at career average, hitting for more power, and making better contact on fly balls, popping out significantly less. This is what the Royals want: a power hitter who walks.
So why isn't Moustakas doing well this year? There are two primary reasons for this. First is that Moustakas' line drive rate is the lowest of his career--15%, almost 3 points lower than his career average of 17.9%--whether this is a byproduct of attempting to hit more fly balls or whether Moustakas is just not making as good of contact I do not know. Second is that Moustakas' BABIP is attempting for Limbo Champion 2014 and is currently at the low, low status of .170. It is this second part that is most intriguing.
Thanks to our very own Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti, we have access to an exquisitely handy spray chart tool at Fangraphs.com. This is a very powerful tool which you can find here (link at the bottom of the explanation). I entered in Mike Moustakas' 2013 and 2014 from the beginning of the season to the most recent date available, June 15, and compared ground ball spray charts. Here's the data:
Orange dots mean an out. Grey dots mean singles, and blue dots are extra-base hits. You'll notice a couple distinctive things here. First is that the 2013 graph shows a lot more grey dots; 11 dots out of 60, while the 2014 graph shows a lot less--3 out of 50. That means that Moustakas' BABIP on ground balls was .183 last year and .060 this year. We'll get back to that in a moment.
Second is that the 2014 graph shows an awful lot outs in shallow right field. It's no secret that Moustakas is a pull hitter, and is among league leaders for unbalanced hitters. This makes him a prime candidate for the shift.
Defenses have been shifting for years, but lately, extreme shifts are far more commonplace. Each year, we see shifts for more and more players. Left handed power hitters are the usual candidates for the shift, as they often pull the ball to get their power. Moustakas is no exception; all of his home runs this year are to right or right-center field. Moustakas himself has participated in the shift defensively, recently fielding three grounders positioned right of second base by Indians veteran and known Whig supporter Jason Giambi. In this shift, the third baseman ranges far right of his normal spot, in some cases even playing a rover-like position in shallow right field.
It is this shift which is eating Moustakas alive. I mentioned earlier his awful BABIP on ground balls, which is primarily being affected by this shift. If there is no shift and Moustakas hits ground balls at his career BABIP of .262, assuming all additional hits are only singles, Moustakas' triple slash rises all the way to .230/.294/.410. Ideal? No. Functional? With good defense, absolutely.
So how would you beat the shift? There are a couple ways. One way is to bunt for a hit every time the opponent leaves nobody on the left side of the infield, or to utilize a Nori Aoki-style slap hit the other way and even get a double every once in a while.
The other way is just to overpower the shift--Adam Dunn has a pretty low career .287 BABIP but murders the ball and gets on base; he also has a career .256 ISO and a 16% walk rate. Another option is to hit lots of line drives; Salvador Perez is pull-happy but keeps his average high with a 22.4% line drive rate.
Either way seems pretty unlikely for Moose. He lacks the talent to overpower the shift and has shown no interest in sneaking around the shift. Until he does so, we are seeing close to the best that we can from Moustakas.