Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Mike Moustakas is struggling at the plate. Once again, the player this organization was counting on to be a “cornerstone” of the team has gotten off to an incredibly disappointing start. You’ve seen the numbers. You know he’s only hitting .149/.219/.333, “good” enough for just a 49 wRC+. All of these are bad things.
Because Moose’s season has been discussed so often, it’s difficult to find something interesting to talk about that hasn’t already been mentioned. Or at least, it was difficult. Until yesterday.
While looking at his profile page on FanGraphs, I noticed that Moose has swung at pitches out of the zone less frequently in 2014 (28.9% this year, 33.5% in his career), but when he’s swinging at them, he’s making contact at an absurdly high rate. In fact, Moustakas has made contact more frequently on swings at pitches out of the zone (82.9%), than on swings at pitches in the zone (82.8%). If that sounds rare, that’s because it is. I tweeted this statistic out yesterday, but it’s definitely worth repeating.
Since 2008, there have been 1,071 qualified batting seasons. Here is the list of players who have had a higher O-Contact% than their Z-Contact%, among those 1,071 seasons:
Mike Moustakas, 2014
That’s it. That’s the list.
What Moustakas is doing right now has literally never been done in the Pitchf/x era. It’s actually kind of mind-boggling to consider that a player could make more contact on balls than he could on strikes. And the word “more” is important here.
Not all contact is created equal, and simply making contact is far from a guarantee of success. When pitches are not in the strike zone, they are typically more difficult to square up and drive somewhere. It follows, then, that pitches out of the strike zone, if met with contact, will be hit with less authority than pitches in the strike zone. Balls hit weakly have a much lower chance of falling for a hit, and an offense that makes a lot of weak contact will struggle to score runs.
Back to Moustakas. This year, his BABIP is a meager .132, and without context, one may assume he’s hitting into quite a bit of bad luck. However, a quick glance at his batted ball data reveals a different story. To date, Moose has a line drive rate of just 11.1%, a ground ball rate of 38.9%, and a fly ball rate of 50%. Obviously the low frequency of line drives is a problem that leads to a lower BABIP, but that combined with a high rate of fly balls will result in an even lower BABIP. Worse still, Moustakas’ ground balls aren’t doing anything for him, as he has a BABIP on grounders of .036. That’s, um, ugly.
Part of that is due to luck, but overall, his unsightly BABIP does make a bit of sense. Moose is simply making too much weak contact. But why is he making such weak contact? That question leads us back to his contact rate
I haven’t found heat maps showing in which parts of the zone Moustakas makes contact most frequently, but I do have the opposite result: whiffs per swing. This is a chart showing where he swings and misses the most (and conversely, the least).
The blue boxes are areas where Moose has a much lower whiff rate, which means they are areas where he has a better contact rate. You’ll notice several blue boxes on the exterior of the strike zone. I should remind you that making contact doesn’t mean the ball is in play, as it includes foul balls. However, when he’s put the ball in play on those pitches, things haven’t gone all that well. Here’s a picture showing Moustakas’ batting average in various parts of the zone.
The Smurfs think that’s a lot of blue.
Finally, here’s the zone profile for Moose’s ground ball rate.
As you can see, Moustakas hits far too many ground balls on pitches out of the strike zone, and with his lack of speed, those ground balls are unlikely to turn into hits. Additionally, considering Moose is a fly ball hitter, it stands to reason that his ground balls won’t be hit with as much authority, since the plane of his swing isn’t likely to allow him to square up too many pitches in those areas out of the zone.
Without breaking down a bunch of film, it’s tough to say exactly how Moustakas is doing this. Intuitively, the numbers indicate he’s showing an ability to adjust to the pitch, based on where it’s thrown, although his mechanics aren’t allowing him to make consistent contact. In other words, his pitch recognition is fine, but his swing isn’t built to drive those pitches all over the park.
Like I mentioned before, it’s nice that Moose is swinging at bad pitches less frequently than he has before, but the high contact rate and poor results suggest he would be better off making less contact on those pitches, if he’s going to swing.
Yes, I think Moose should swing and miss more frequently.
That may not make a ton of sense at first, but consider how many plate appearances have ended before getting to two strikes, simply because Moustakas grounded out weakly or popped up on a ball out of the zone. If Moose swings through those pitches instead of making contact, he’ll get another chance in the box. Obviously there’s no guarantee he’ll cash in on that extra opportunity, but seeing another pitch or two is far better than the alternative.
Now, I fully realize it is still early in the season, and I don’t expect his O-Contact% to outpace his Z-Contact% all year. I’m also not saying Moose should intentionally whiff at more pitches, because telling a hitter not to adapt to a pitch is much easier said than done. However, in order for Moustakas to improve his production, some adjustments need to be made, and as David Lesky of Pine Tar Press noted yesterday, we’re nearing that 100 at bat threshold Ned Yost mentioned as an evaluation point.
We know that when Moose does square up a ball, he can hit it a long way, judging by his .184 ISO. His contact rate in the zone shows his normal swing also has some issues, but I do think he might be better off taking those big swings more frequently. He can still adjust to pitches, but perhaps he should only slow his bat down significantly in two-strike counts. He’s not going to be a high average guy, so the best way for Moustakas to compensate for that is by hitting for power. Moose also has never struck out at a high rate, but the Royals might be better served if he sacrifices some contact in an effort to bring more pop to the plate.
This strategy is far from a lock to work, but this team can’t afford to continue on the same path for much longer. If Moustakas doesn’t adjust, the Royals will need to make some kind of move, and while it could be difficult for him to essentially become a different hitter, something has to be done. In the current circumstances, Moose may become a more productive player by making less contact.