Mike Moustakas’ Best Bunt Opportunities


Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Moustakas has been a fairly easy player to defend. He’s been an extreme pull hitter, and on the rare occasions he does hit the ball to the left side, it’s usually in the air long enough for any one of a handful of fielders to jog over and catch it. Teams used the shift consistently against Moose last year, and his numbers were even worse than they had been previously. This is a family website, so I won’t post the grotesque statistics yet again.

Everyone knows about his inability to beat the shift last season, including Moustakas himself, so he’s planning on using a different strategy in 2015 to improve his offense: bunting.

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Bunting against the shift isn’t a new idea, but it’s something we don’t see as often as we might expect. Hitters are stubborn, and they don’t want to completely abandon the approach that got them to the big leagues. A power hitter doesn’t like the idea of settling for a bunt that only results in a single in a best-case scenario. I understand that, of course. Unfortunately, it’s tough to call a guy with a .379 career slugging percentage a “power hitter.”

Moustakas is willing to adjust, and he’ll be working on his bunting this spring to make sure he knows what he’s doing when he squares around. Despite his poor numbers, though, bunting isn’t necessarily something he has to do incredibly often. Moose does possess some power, and in some matchups, it makes sense for him to stick to his guns and go for the long ball.

As a fly ball hitter, Moustakas has had his best success against sinkers. His uppercut swing tends to make the best contact on pitches low in the zone, and that’s where most sinkers are thrown. He has a .273 batting average and .462 slugging percentage against that pitch in his career. That slugging percentage is 100 points higher than it is against four-seam fastballs.

Fastballs of the four-seam variety can be thrown anywhere, but they tend to generate more whiffs and weak contact – i.e., popups – when they are up in the zone. Moose struggles with lots of pitches, but balls in the upper part of the zone are much more difficult for him to drive.

As you can see, those pitches down are pitches he can crush, so if he’s facing a pitcher who consistently hammers the bottom part of the zone, settling for a bunt single may not be the best strategy. On the other side of that coin, if pitchers are throwing a lot of high heat, squaring around might be his best chance of success.

Having said that: which pitchers, who will face Moustakas the most, fall into each of those categories?

To find out, I looked at each divisional rival’s projected starting rotation and started to narrow things down. Right away, we know that Moustakas should basically never face a left-handed pitcher, ever. If he is in the box against a lefty for some crazy reason, he should be strongly considering a bunt. Unless he still has that weird voodoo magical power over Jose Quintana (.972 OPS in 29 PA).

That leaves right-handers. I pulled up each pitcher’s ground ball rate, fastball usage, and two-seam/sinker usage from 2014 to see what matchups would be most preferable for Moustakas. This is far from scientific, but hey, that’s alright. You should get the idea.

Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, Ervin Santana, and Phil Hughes are guys who don’t generate a ton of grounders, and they use a fastball pretty heavily, so they seem like pitchers against whom Moose ought to look to lay one down. Moustakas has never had success against Justin Verlander, who also meets the above criteria, so despite Verlander’s recent issues, a bunt might be the best course of action. Anibal Sanchez gets some grounders, but he’s a good enough pitcher to make squaring up seem like a good idea.

The only other possible bunt candidate is Carlos Carrasco, who throws a fastball more than 45% of the time. But, he induces ground balls frequently, so the decision to bunt or swing isn’t so clear.

Beyond those guys, there are plenty of pitchers Moustakas should, in theory, be able to hit. Ricky Nolasco doesn’t get many grounders, but he throws plenty of pitches in the lower half, and he’s a below average pitcher. Hector Noesi gets plenty of fly balls and throws a fastball frequently, but he’s not particularly good and is vulnerable to the home run, so swinging away isn’t a terrible idea. Corey Kluber just won a Cy Young award, and while I wouldn’t advise against bunting, he also throws a ton of sinkers and cutters, pitches Moose can crush.

Jeff Samardzija is a good pitcher, but he can be homer-prone, and he throws a two-seamer quite often. Alfredo Simon, Kyle Gibson, and Shane Greene rely on their two-seamers more than any other pitch. Gavin Floyd doesn’t throw sinkers, but he will give up plenty of dingers.

To clarify, I’m not saying Moose should never bunt against any of those last several pitchers, or that he should never swing away against the first few. It’s about giving him the best chance to reach base in each plate appearance, and that chance varies based upon matchups.

I’m not expecting Moustakas to start laying bunts down every other game, and neither should you. There is an element of surprise involved with beating a shift with a bunt, and if he does it too regularly, they may alter the shift to leave a defender in a position where a bunt can be easily fielded.

Bunting won’t eliminate the shift, of course. Teams will still deploy an unbalanced defensive alignment unless Moustakas starts hitting the ball with authority to other parts of the field, and that seems unlikely to happen, barring a total change in approach and swing mechanics.

Even if Moose does start bunting more this year, I don’t envision him having a great season. However, his numbers will likely tick up some if he takes a free single every so often. Moustakas can use this small weapon to his advantage, but he’ll need to pick his spots wisely.

If a pitcher is hammering him up in the zone, a bunt single is a better result than a popout. But there are still going to be pitchers who challenge him in the lower half, and if Moose sees a pitch in his power zone, he’ll be able to do more damage than just a dribbler up the third base line. Hopefully.

Next: Bubba's Looking for His Breakout