Is Mike Moustakas a Lost Cause?
Nearly two years ago, Mike Moustakas went into the All-Star break with a cool slash of .268/.327/.490. He had an OPS of .817 to go along with 15 homers and 47 runs batted in. He was playing Gold Glove defense at third base, and some fans clamored for Moustakas to be the team's representative in Kauffman Stadium's first All-Star game since 1973. "Mooooose" chants could be heard around Kansas City, to go along with the new Moose antlers that started to make their way around Kansas City. Fans dreamt of Moustakas being the first Royal to hit 30 home runs in a season since Jermaine Dye did it in 2000.
The Royals entered the second half of play sitting at 37-47, with Billy Butler and Moustakas being the lone bright spots for the struggling team. Since the second half of the 2012 season began on July 13, 2012, Moustakas has amassed 940 plate appearances and has hit just .215. His OPS is a paltry .615 during that span. And after 40 games of struggling in 2014, hitting just .152, the Royals have optioned Moustakas to Triple-A Omaha, bringing up infielder Jimmy Paredes.
The same fans that called out Moose chants and voted for him to be an All-Star have been calling for this demotion for weeks. Many more fans believe this move is is much longer over due. So at this point, the question the Royals and their fans are asking and hoping to find out is, what exactly is wrong with Moose?
What Has to Be Fixed
Although Moose's 2012 numbers look okay on the outside - a .242 batting average, 20 home runs, 73 runs batted in - they get worse the deeper you go. Moustakas finished his "career year" with an OPS of just .708 and an OPS+ of 91 (keep in mind, 100 is average). His career numbers are even worse, too. Of all active players with at least 1,500 plate appearances, Moustakas' .290 OBP is the worst of the bunch. The two players above directly above him are Darwin Barney and Moustakas' teammate, Alcides Escobar, who both have defensive value that exceed their offensive struggles.
Escobar and Barney are similar to players like Andrelton Simmons and Elvis Andrus; players that play at premier defensive positions, and are paid to play great defense - any extra offense is icing on the cake. The Royals are currently licking their chops that Escobar is hitting because his Gold Glove-caliber glove is enough to offset his usually lackluster bat. Moustakas wasn't drafted to play above average defense - he was paid to hit for power and drive in runs, something the Royals desperately need, and he's simply not doing that (nor has he ever, consistently, at the major league level).
So what has been his problem in 2014? Two things stick out to me. First, he's swinging at too many balls. Actually, if we look deeper into the issue, his real problem is the amount of contact he makes on balls out of the zone. For his career, Moustakas has a 35% O-Swing%, the percentage of balls swung at out of the strike zone, to go along with a 68.5% Z-Swing%, the percentage of balls swung at in the strike zone. Moustakas has actually improved in 2014 in this regard because his O-Swing% is down to 30.2% and his Z-Swing% is up to 72%. However, his O-Contact%, which is the percentage of times a batter makes contact while swinging at a ball out of the zone, is 10.3% higher than his career average of 71.9%, at 82.2%.
This directly correlates with his Z-Contact percentage, the percentage of times a batter makes contact while swinging at a ball in the zone, which sits at 82.6%. His career number in that category is 88%. Essentially, Moustakas isn't chasing more pitches than he usually does, he's just making contact more often. On the other side, he is making contact with strikes less often than he has in the past. Overall, Moustakas is making contact with just as many balls out of the zone (82.2%) than in the zone (82.6%). Obviously, this is something that could derail any hitter.
The next problem is an extension of the first. Moustakas is struggling to hit strikes, but the real problem is that most of those struggles come against fastballs. So far in 2014, Moustakas has posted a -7.5 wFB, or fastball runs above average, a -0.3 wCT, or cutter runs above average and a -1.6 wSF, or split-finger fastball runs above average. Against breaking balls, Moustakas has a combined 2.2 runs above average, which includes changeups, sliders and curveballs. What these numbers tell us is that Moustakas can't hit a fastball, which tends to have a negative effect on a Major League hitter's production.
Can It Be Fixed?
The simple answer to this question is: yes. Royals fans should know that players like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both took off after being sent down to Triple-A. Alex Gordon was a lost cause and a failure, similar to Mousakas, until he went down to Omaha and figured things out. So it is possible.
There are also some things that should encourage Royals fans from Moose this season, albeit all smaller things. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Moustakas' line-drive percentage is 22%, which is 2% higher than league average, as well as being identical to teammate Eric Hosmer's percentage. Moustakas' BABIP is .155, which is the worst percentage among hitters with at least 130 plate appearances. So, according to those numbers, Moustakas has been a little unlucky.
Those numbers, however, are also open to interpretation. FanGraphs.com only registers Moustakas' line-drive percentage at 15.8. Aside from the line-drive percentage, Moustakas has registered a walk in a career high 8.6% of his at-bats, as well as seeing his infield fly ball percentage at a career low 10%. So there are a few little things to take as positive signs from Moustakas.
The one thing we shouldn't do, however, is write off Moustakas. Any player can be fixed, especially when that player is a guy as talented and powerful as Moose. Some people are skeptical of minor league and spring training stats, but they aren't completely meaningless. Moustakas ran over the competition in the minors, and plowed through the competion in spring training, including showing the ability to hit major league left-handers. He still has ability.
The key for Moustakas is for him to start improving on his craft as a hitter, not just his mechanics like he has most of his time in Kansas City. He made the infamous comments this spring that he doesn't watch film on himself. For a guy that is hitting .152, that's unacceptable. For an organization to put enough trust in one of the league's worst hitters, to let him do his own thing is even more unacceptable.
With all of that being said, one thing he is going to have to do to improve as a hitter is watch himself hit. His problems are may be partly mechanical, but most of his issue lie in his approach and fundamental abilities. The cool thing about having a problem with approach is that it is fixable. Give him some at-bats in Triple-A and some time to reevaluate his approach, and maybe he can make some strides. Weirder things have happened.