Mike Moustakas, Misplays, & Misconceptions About His Defense

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Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Moustakas has been the subject of many written words, on this site, and the rest of the internet, for much of his career. He arrived in Kansas City with a ton of hype, and the kind of prospect pedigree that led to many fans expecting 30 home runs a year with several All-Star selections. His glove had question marks at third base, but his bat appeared to be one that could make a big impact.

As you’re likely aware, that impact has yet to be felt in the regular season.

Rather than write the same words – again – on Moose’s disappointing offense, I’m going to write different words. I wanted to turn some attention to his glovework at the hot corner. Moustakas has been far more impressive defensively than anyone probably expected, with somewhat surprising range and an incredibly strong throwing arm.

The defensive metrics tend to love him, as he’s posted a UZR of at least 2.6 runs above average in each of the last 3 seasons, with his best season coming in 2012. According to DRS, he’s been slightly below average the last 2 years, but he was 14 runs above average in 2012. If you combine the two systems, Moustakas looks something like an above average third baseman. In the last 3 years, he ranks 8th in UZR/150 among the 30 third basemen with at least 1,500 innings at the position.

Yet, there are still varying opinions on the real value of Moose’s defense. Some believe he’s deserving of a Gold Glove, and that it’s worth putting up with his subpar offense to ensure his glove stays on the field. Others think he’s simply not very good, pointing to his 19 errors in 2014 as evidence. His 11 fielding errors were tied for the most in the American League. Now, errors are a very flawed way of looking at things (even more flawed than defensive metrics) so relying on that as proof of bad defense is foolish.

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It doesn’t mean everything, but it also doesn’t mean nothing. Moose has committed 50 errors in the last 3 years, ranking 3rd among those third basemen mentioned above. That’s a lot. Oddly enough, the two guys above him are Josh Donaldson, who’s excellent defensively, and Pedro Alvarez, who is definitely not excellent defensively. So trying to paint Moose with too broad of a brush based upon errors is probably not wise.

Still, I remember many times last season when Moustakas would either make a poor throw or boot a makeable play, drawing the ire of many Royals fans. I also remember him making some great diving stops and long throws across the diamond. I think there may be a misconception of Moose’s actual value on defense because he makes so many difficult plays, so to check my memory, I went to FanGraphs, where they have fielding data from Inside Edge, which places batted balls into buckets based upon how likely the ball will be fielded and turned into an out.

Plays can be categorized as Impossible (0% chance of being made), Remote (1-10%), Unlikely (10-40%), Even (40-60%), Likely (60-90%), or Routine (90-100%). For now, I just want to look at his work on plays in the middle 3 buckets.

In 2012, his numbers across the board were terrific, but things regressed in some categories over the last 2 years.

2013
Unlikely: 27.3%
Even: 75.0%
Likely: 78.6%

2014
Unlikely: 38.5%
Even: 62.5%
Likely: 66.7%

Granted, the sample we’re working with here isn’t massive, but it’s what we have, and we can still identify some trends. We see that Moose made more plays than one would expect in the Even category in both seasons, though it did fall in 2014. These are basically 50-50 plays, and Moustakas still made more than half of them, so it looks like he’s making the plays an above average defender would make. Now look at the Likely category.

These are plays that should be made 60-90% of the time, and in 2014, Moose made just two-thirds of them. That’s not awful, but it’s well below what you want to see from someone with such a good defensive reputation, and well below what he did in 2013 (78.6%) and 2012 (93.5%). He also made nearly as many plays in the Even category as he did in the Likely category. That’s good, but also bad.

Here’s another way of looking at his defensive regression. These are the plays Moose missed in 2012:

This is the same chart for 2013:

And of course, for 2014:

You’ll notice more green dots in 2013 than in 2012, and more green dots in 2014 than in 2013. You don’t want to see that many green dots. As I mentioned above, he still successfully fielded plenty of the balls in the more difficult categories, but the easier plays were, well, not much easier.

Let’s now take a look at how Moustakas stacks up next to his peers to get an even better idea of his fielding prowess.

In 2012, he converted on 97.7% of Routine plays (4th-best in baseball), 93.6% of Likely plays (1st), 65.2% of Even plays (5th), 42.9% of Unlikely plays (3rd), and 27.8% of Remote plays (1st). He was legitimately one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. Some of those trends continued the next two seasons.

Since the start of 2013, he’s converted 3.2% of the plays in the Remote category, which is the 13th-best percentage among 31 third basemen with at least 1,000 innings. He’s tied for 8th in Unlikely plays, and 6th in Even plays. In other words, when the play’s odds of success are worse than a coin flip, Moustakas has been an above average third basemen.

But on Likely plays, he ranks just 25th. On Routine plays, Moose has fielded 95.1% of the batted balls successfully, which ranks 28th. These are the easiest plays, and yet, Moustakas has been one of the worst at his position at making them.

Moose’s relatively poor performance may not continue into the future, but it most certainly was a thing in the last two years. He misplayed balls that should have been turned into outs, which is reflected in the Inside Edge numbers, and the high error totals.

The problem with having a defender struggle with plays in the Routine category is that the vast majority of plays fall into the Routine category. Of the 714 plays he’s had some chance to make in the last 2 years, 569 of them have been Routine. That’s roughly 80% of all plays.

It’s great to see Moustakas making diving stops to his left, or falling into the dugout suite to make an insane catch. I’m not taking anything away from his ability to make difficult plays. He’s been great at that. Those flashy plays deserve praise, and they tend to stick in the minds of fans, which is why I believe so many see Moose as an excellent defender. It’s easier to forget a handful of misplays when the diving stab of a liner gets replayed over and over again.

However, the Royals need their third baseman to be more effective at fielding the routine plays, particularly since 40% of their rotation now consists of pitchers with groundball tendencies. Moustakas should have even more fielding opportunities than in previous seasons, which means he’ll need to improve on those normal plays to not crack the 20-error mark.

The Royals are already dealing with his below average bat, but they’ve been more willing to do so because of his glove. If Moustakas can’t make enough easy plays on defense, it won’t be worth keeping him around for the difficult ones.

I do think Moose has the physical tools to be better defensively, and we saw that potential in 2012. But if the Moustakas we’ve seen in the last two seasons is the real Moustakas, the Royals won’t be able to live with his bat for much longer.

Keeping a low-OBP, some-power, some-glove third baseman on the roster isn’t terrible when he’s making the league minimum, but now that Moose is entering arbitration, it’s important that he bring more value to the table. Recently, his glove has been just adequate – not elite – which means the clock has to be ticking on the former top prospect.

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