Moose with a familiar outcome (Minda Haas)

This time last winter, I figured Mike Moustakas would be the first of the wave of the heralded prospects to make their way to Kansas City. Close, but Moose was lapped by the amazing Eric Hosmer. No shame in that, though. The Royals third baseman of the future showed he has the chops to survive and thrive in the majors.

Patience has never been a part of Moose’s game. He walked just 27 times in 486 plate appearances in Triple-A and took the free pass 22 times in 365 plate appearances once he arrived in Kansas City. That’s just the type of player he is. He’s been able to get away with that grip it and rip it approach in the minors against lesser competition, but he’s going to have to reign it in for the majors. Last year, he swung at pitches outside of the zone 35.2% of the time. League average was 30.6%.

While he chases out of the zone, he doesn’t miss many pitches. Last year his contact rate was 85.5%, well above the league average of 80.7%. The lesson here though is that when you’re swinging at pitches outside of your happy zone, it may actually be better to miss.

This is going to be an outlier, but from Texas Leaguers, look at his spray chart from July when he hit .160/.198/.223:

It’s pretty obvious he wasn’t driving the ball worth a damn that month. Check his five most common outcomes that month.

Groundout – 20.4%
Pop out – 17.5%
Flyout – 14.6%
Strikeout – 11.7%
Single – 8.7%

I’ve been doing these kind of analytical articles for several years, both here and at Baseball Prospectus. And I’ve never seen a player who had “Pop out” listed in their top five. Let alone second. The numbers at FanGraphs back this up… Over a quarter of his balls in play were classified as infield flies in July.

Wow.

Fast forward to September:

Now, he’s finally driving the ball. Enough that he posted a .352/.380/.580 line. Eleven of his 24 extra base hits came in the season’s final month.

What changed? Pretty simple, actually. He stopped chasing. Here’s his swing chart from July:

Compare that to September:

He just couldn’t resist that high cheese when he broke in to the majors. And it was killing him. Credit to him for making the adjustments and adjusting his approach. He was working the count to his favor, getting a fat pitch and creating havoc with his bat. The strange thing, though… He still dropped his bat head enough that even in a month like September, where he’s posting great numbers, he’s still popping out way too much. Over 16 percent of his balls in play that month were classified as infield pops. And according to the data collected by Texas Leaguers, pop outs were again his second most common plate appearance resolution.

(Some of the credit with the strong September for Moose has to go to Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who worked with the rookie on pitch recognition and helped him make the adjustment in his approach. In July, Moose put a change-up in play only 19% of the time and swung and missed 18% of the time. In September, he put change-ups in play at a 33% clip and swung and missed just 7% of the time. Seitzer is doing some nice things working with these young hitters. I hope the Royals realize this.)

It’s odd because indications are, as he progressed through the system (and improved at each stop after slow starts) he didn’t tinker with his swing all that much. The changes was usually along the lines of the one I outlined above – he read the patterns shown by the opposing pitchers, adjusted his approach and stopped chasing pitches he couldn’t crush.

We’ve seen the September numbers lie before, but I think in this case, it’s a true positive for Moustakas. After his struggles early following his promotion (again), he made the proper adjustments and went on a tear (again.) This is huge. Triple-A is littered with former top prospects who cruised through the minors with little resistance, but when failure reared it’s ugly head, couldn’t make the necessary adjustments to their game.

It looks like Moose has what it takes with the bat to play in the big leagues.

Defensively, I think he’s fine at third. His arm is certainly strong enough and he has decent enough footwork and reflexes. I’m not going to discuss his UZR (too small a sample size), but I will note of his 11 errors, six were on throws and five were fielding miscues. Of the 252 balls he fielded at third, 86% were turned into at least one out. That 86% is league average. He’s not going to win any Gold Gloves in the near future, but he’s not going to hurt this team, either. Let’s call him a solid fielding third baseman.

Now we have to worry about the presence of The Yunigma and the fact the Royals actually seem to believe he’s a viable backup at third base. This is a troubling development for a couple of reasons. One, there’s just no way Betancourt can field at third base. And two, Moustakas struggled against lefties last summer, hitting just .156/.229/.219 against southpaws and there has been mention that Yuni may get the call to spell Moustakas when the Royals face a tough left hander. This possibility bothers me. (Although, to be honest, the very existence of The Yunigma on this roster bothers me.) If the kid is going to continue his development into any kind of contributing player, you let him take his licks against the tougher competition. I say, leave him alone unless he’s absolutely sunk into the abyss and his confidence is at an all time low. They did that in July – mainly because by then the Royals lone infield backup was Chris Getz – and he rewarded the team with a great September. (Anyway, I think Yuni is here to take over for Giavotella. A slow start dooms that kid.)

Moose made huge gains in the space of a single season in 2011. If the Royals remain patent with him, he’ll continue his development in 2012.