Mike Moustakas is not a good hitter.
Sorry to be so blunt. But come on, you’ve seen him play. That’s just a fact.
Over parts of four seasons, Moustakas has accumulated 1,992 plate appearances. His career slash line is .236/.290/.379. No matter how many plate appearances Ned Yost and Dayton Moore need to evaluate talent, I think we’ve seen enough. The results are… incredibly underwhelming.
In the history of baseball, only two third basemen have had more plate appearances and a worse slash line than Moustakas. One, Lee Tanneyhill, played in the deadball era and slashed .220/.269/.273 in over 4,100 plate appearances for the White Sox. The other is John Kennedy, a journeyman third baseman who played for the Senators, Dodgers, Yankees, Pilots/Brewers, and Red Sox. In a 12 year career, he had 2,324 plate appearances and hit .225/.281/.323.
The point isn’t to compare these three players. Crossing eras and using a slash line isn’t really the best way to draw distinction. The point here is to underscore how the Royals have been relentless in their propping up of Moustakas as an acceptable everyday third baseman, continually listing him in the lineup only to watch him underperform at a now near historic level.
How about we simplify the search? How about a list of third basemen who have more than 1,990 plate appearances in their career and have an OPS+ less than 85? And let’s narrow it further to the dawn of the expansion era.
Here’s the list:
Poor John Kennedy.
And wow. Mike Moustakas is the new Pedro Feliz. Think about it. That’s… less than ideal. The above list has some familiar names. There have been a few third basemen who haven’t been adequate at the dish. Brandon Inge, David Bell, Tom Brookens and Feliz all got far too many plate appearances with a less than average bat.
We are getting to the point where the frustration level should be building that the Royals continue to employ Mike Moustakas as a full-time third baseman. Yet, aside from a brief sojourn to Omaha last summer, he has been THE GUY for the Royals. It’s understanding they want (and need) their high draft pick to succeed. As a fan, I want him to succeed, too. But there is simply too much evidence to ignore.
Let’s focus on a couple of things Moustakas did right in 2014. For starters, he increased his walk rate. He had been around 6.2 percent for his career and last summer he walked about seven percent of the time. A modest increase to be sure, but this is Moustakas we’re discussing. There aren’t any giant leaps forward in his game. You take what you can get. So I’m going to place his increase in walk rate on the “positive” side of the ledger. Another rate positive was his decrease in strikeout rate. In 2014, Moustakas whiffed 14.8 percent of the time, slicing more than a percentage point off his rate from the previous summer.
More walks and fewer strikeouts is generally a good thing. Moustakas also increased his contact rate for the second consecutive year. In fact, it’s kind of impressive how he’s shown improvement in this area.
2012 – 77.9%
2013 – 81.2%
2014 – 84.3%
But we’ve all watched Sal Perez. We know that more contact doesn’t exactly equate better contact. In fact, his contact on pitches outside the strike zone went up to a whopping 79.7 percent, well above the league average of 68 percent. I know the Royals preach their hitters putting the bat on the ball, but this strikes me as the batting equivalent of the “pitch to contact” revolution that was incredibly unsuccessful a decade ago. Absolutely, you have to put the bat on the ball. There has to be a method… An approach at the plate. Have a plan. Work the count. Be selective. Gain the advantage before you step up and start taking your hacks. Moustakas is a prime example of a guy needing a plan to be successful. When he got ahead in the count in 2014, he owned pitchers. Check his splits broken out by when he’s ahead in the count, even and behind.
OH MY GOD, I FOUND A STAT WHERE MOUSTAKAS IS LEAGUE AVERAGE.
Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell. Although I consider my discovery to be on par with when Bell invented the telephone or when Rutherford split the atom.
Of course, it’s natural to assume that when a hitter is ahead in the count, he’s going to be more successful. That’s why we say he’s “ahead,” after all. The amazing thing is Moustakas is actually a better than league average hitter when he’s ahead. Mind blown. His sOPS+ (the split relative to the league) when he’s ahead in the count is a healthy 126.
Unfortunately, when he’s behind – or even in the count – he’s a miserable hitter. God awful. Like he’s never swung the bat in his life. He owned a 34 sOPS+ when even in the count and a 33 sOPS+ when he was behind in 2014. So that above average hitter when he’s ahead in the count? He gives it all back and then some the rest of the time.
How about another positive development in his offensive game? Moustakas increased his average distance of fly balls and home runs in 2014 by about 15 feet. That may not sound like a big deal, but his increase was the 11th best among major league regulars last year. Adding length to the batted ball is a nice explanation for improved performance for that season. That season. Studies have shown most players experience a one year blip and give roughly half their distance back the following season. The sad thing is Moustakas didn’t realize an improvement that’s often related to increasing distance.
Probably one reason his fly ball distance increased was his decrease on number of infield fly balls. His IFFB rate in 2014 was 15.1 percent, down from the previous year’s 16.6 percent. Had he garnered enough plate appearances to qualify, he still would have ranked sixth in the AL in IFFB rate. (First place went to Sal Perez at 17.3 percent. Boy, his profile is going to be fun.) Unrelated, his HR/FB rate was a career-best 9.4 percent. Still too low for someone with his power potential, but it’s a nice place to be, and an improvement upon his previous season.
Moustakas hit five home runs in the postseason, so you know the Royals are going to promote the hell out of that next month when he starts teeing off in the desert. But let’s be real. In October, Moustakas slashed .231/.259/.558. That’s a 127 wRC+, which is nice, but it’s not like Moustakas hasn’t done this before. He hit five home runs in July of 2014. And in May and June of 2012. Moustakas is a streaky hitter. But even his hot streaks aren’t all that impressive.
Moustakas is one of the more heavily shifted hitters in baseball. For good reason. Here is his spray chart on batted balls.
When you have a cluster like that around the second base area on ground balls, you’re going to get shifted. Now despite what the new commissioner says, I believe the shift is here to stay. And it’s going to continue to confound one-dimensional hitters like Moustakas. He was never going to hit for a high average anyway, so I’m not certain what’s the big deal about the shift. The way you beat it is either to go the other way or stop hitting so many ground balls.
I haven’t even touched on Moustakas’s mechanics at the plate. Let’s just say they’re a hot mess. I’ve seen him roll over his front foot, open up way too soon, stand too far off the plate, stand too close to the plate, fail to get his arms extended… you get the picture. He must be a hitting coach’s nightmare. He’s tinkering so much – yet allegedly refusing to watch video – that he just seems to be a lost cause at this point.
Defensively, Moustakas is fine. He could be better. Although his glove most definitely does not make up for his weak bat.
According to Inside Edge, Moustakas made roughly 95 percent of “routine” plays at third last year. That puts him in the middle of the pack for the hot corner. However, he made only 66 percent of the plays classified as “likely.” That puts him in the lower quarter of regular third basemen. Here’s his heat chart from Fangraphs and Inside Edge.
From the charts above, it looks like Moustakas has most of his issues ranging to his left. The data from The Fielding Bible backs this up, which has him at -2 on the +/- scale when ranging toward the shortstop. His strength would be coming in and charging the ball on short fielding plays. Again, he’s solid defensively. Not a Gold Glover.
Moustakas is eligible for arbitration for the first time and is looking for a contract of $3.1 million. The Royals countered with $1.85 million. Fangraphs had Moustakas at 0.9 fWAR last year (ranking 21st out of 25 third basemen with at least 500 plate appearances) which meant his dollar value was around $4.6 million to the Royals. He’s going to get a raise and whatever he earns won’t be absurd in the game’s current economic climate.
Still, the sooner the Royals realize he’s not an everyday third baseman, the better. If he’s not good enough to play everyday, is he a viable platoon candidate? Eh. Here are his career splits:
vs LHP – .211/.267/.328 63 wRC+
vs RHP – .245/.297/.396 89 wRC+
Underwhelming, no matter who is on the mound. At least he’s still relatively affordable, so you could at least partially understand keeping him around as a platoon. That’s what the Royals attempted to do last year with Danny Valencia, but they pretty much bailed on that deal.
Moustakas is here to stay. At least for 2015. He will continue to roll over and pull grounders to second, hit mile-high pop-ups that don’t leave the infield, and will be stunningly average in the field. He will be serenaded by “Mooooose” calls and will continue to be a fan favorite. Hopefully, the 2015 Royals can – like the 2014 Royals – overcome his presence in the lineup.