KC Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas is finally playing like the star he was projected to be when general manager Dayton Moore made him the second overall pick of the 2007 amateur draft. Moustakas did it by turning himself into a latter-day version of former Kansas City Royals superstar George Brett.
Last year, Mike Moustakas barely held onto his major league job for the KC Royals. He hit .212/.271/.361 with 15 home runs for an OPS+ (on base plus slugging adjusted for park factors and opponent quality) of 75 (25% worse than a league average hitter).
Through the first month of 2015, Moustakas is hitting .319/.388/.448 for an OPS+ of 131.
Mike Moustakas’ stunning transformation from a struggling position player to star hitter is due to his ability to beat the shift. Yahoo.com’s Jeff Passan asserts Moustakas is the first player to truly exploit the shift since last season’s defensive positioning revolution driven by advanced defensive data.
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To achieve this, Moustakas has become an all-fields hitter that isn’t necessarily looking to hit the home run. Sound familiar Kansas City Royals fans? That’s exactly the approach another left-handed hitting third baseman named George Brett adopted around 40 years ago.
It carried Brett to three batting titles and the MLB Hall-of-Fame.
Joel Wagler wrote a long analysis about Moose’s transformation on KC Kingdom. Through Moustakas’ minor-league career and his first four years in the major leagues, he had always been a dead pull hitter. You can easily see this by comparing Mike Moustakas’ hit chart through the end of the 2014 season to his spray chart from this season:
What’s more, Moose was not a pure hitter. He was a slugger that was trying to put the ball over the fence. In 2010, Moustakas led all minor-league hitters with 36 combined home runs between AA Northwest Arkansas and AAA Omaha.
In 2011, he was playing third base for the Kansas City Royals.
Success as a minor-league slugger is what brought Moustakas to the big leagues at age 22. No wonder he was reluctant to change. Moose told Yahoo.com’s Jeff Passan:
"“Last year, I was really stubborn,” Moustakas said. “I didn’t think I could get beat by the shift. I felt like I could hit through it. I realized I can’t.”“This offseason I made it a point,” he said. “I’d rather hit around .300 with less home runs than hit .212 with 15. It wasn’t so much about changing my swing as much as changing the thought process behind my swing and where I wanted to hit the ball. You’ve got to swallow your pride and realize that if there are going to be five guys on one side of the field, you probably should just take your hits the other way.”"
"The overhaul was severe. In the past, Moustakas saw a fastball and his first instinct was to hit it to right-center field. On fastballs now, he wants to poke them to left field. Rather than the general idea of “letting the ball travel deep” – a phrase Sveum loathes – he talks with Moustakas about the idea of the ball traveling toward the plate in increments. Every ball is three inches wide, so waiting an extra ball or ball-and-a-half means a hitter must discipline himself from hitting the ball in front of the plate, as so many successful pull hitters do.Some would fail under such a strategy. Moustakas’ hands are quick enough to wait an extra ball or two and still power line drives to left field. With one fielder on that side of the diamond, the real estate is inviting enough that it didn’t take Moustakas long to buy into his new philosophy."
Mike Moustakas has succeeded by applying the “Lucas critique” to baseball, which I said he needed to do this winter in a piece I wrote for KC Kingdom. Robert Lucas was an economist who pointed out that tactical shifts in response to an opponents’ historical political or business performance tend not to work long term because the changes open up new weakness that the enemy can exploit.
In the simpliest terms: people can adjust.
That’s exactly what Mike Moustakas has done. Mike Moustakas told Passan in reference to what he might do if teams stopped shifting against him:
"“Until then, I’ll take those cheap hits to the left side,” Moustakas said, and he chuckled, the old power hitter in him surfacing. What he calls cheap, everyone else sees as functional. Getting on base is getting on base, and no matter how it’s done, it’s not cheap if it’s consistent."
Note that George Brett served two months as hitting coach for the team in 2013, and still helps out the coaches when the team is in Kansas City. He has to smile at what current KC Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas is doing at the plate this season.
Sometimes it pays to teach a new dog old tricks.