For whatever reason, I’ve stayed on the Mike Moustakas bandwagon longer than most – when I watch the Royals, his approach at the plate looks calm and he’s always seemed to play a decent 3B. Of course, those that hit 20 HRs at the age of 23 in the majors on the heels of being a high draft pick earn a lot of latitude when it comes to struggling – but as of today, I’m officially giving up on Moustakas.
I can’t really point to any particular game or play (he did manage a base hit off Justin Verlander this afternoon). I’ve probably watched 10 KC games this seasons and I have preached optimism about him. Recently though, it’s been difficult to find the silver lining amidst a long string of soft fly balls and roll over ground outs to 2B. Entering today, Moose carried a 182/250/287 line. Amongst batting title qualifiers, he is 3rd worst in the majors (astonishing in its own right).
But more than anything in the games I’ve seen or the numbers on his page, I spent some time trying to understand if we’ve seen a trajectory like his recently – success at 22 and 23, followed by catastrophic disasters. Using baseball-reference.com, I searched for players that broke into the majors at 22, and got at least 750 plate appearances (approximately a season as a half) at the hot corner through their age 23 season (Moustakas had around 900). The search returned four players: Evan Longoria, Moustakas, Jim Presley and Fernando Tatis.
Starting with the low hanging fruit, I suspect even Mrs. Moustakas would admit that Moose is no Evan Longoria, so let’s scratch him off the list. But Presley and Tatis? While perhaps disappointing given Moustakas’ lofty draft status, I thought they presented interesting cases. Tatis has an odd career arc – he broke in with the Rangers in 1997 but was traded the following season to St. Louis and in 1999-2000, Tatis hit 281/394/530 with 52 HRs and an OPS+ of 130. Thereafter he spent 3 years in Montreal, 2 years out of the majors, one with Baltimore, again out of baseball in 2007, then 3 quiet years in NY before calling it a career. ALl in all, the path is so bizarre that to me it offers little in the way of visibility to Moustakas’ future
Jim Presley, however, is a separate case. Toiling away for the mid 80s Mariners, Presley broke in during teammate Alvin Davis’s Rookie of the Year campaign in 1984, and in his first two seasons hit 261/301/459 (OPS+ 107) with 38 HRs. He hit 27 HRs and made the all-star team in 1986, and over 8 seasons that ended when Presley turned 30, Presley managed a career line of 247/290/420 (135 HRs, OPS+ 91). UNdoubtedly, the scores of outstanding baseball writers (Neyer, Posnanski, Jayzerli, etc) will be disappointed if Moustakas’s career follows Presley’s path, but at this point, is there much to indicate more? Through his first 2 years, Moose has put up a 250/301/395 line (OPS+ 90) and 25 HRs – very Presley like to be sure in the batters box, and though I don’t recall Presley’s defense, I suspect Moustakas is more valuable with the glove.
Would that I had stopped there. But no – one of the big reasons that those few of us that have defended Moustakas this season is his contact at the plate. Moustakas is striking out only 14.5% of the time (looking at the leaders, he is sandwiched right between Matt Holliday and Miguel Cabrera), and he is not swinging too often, not making infrequent contact. What does stand out to everyone is his BABIP — .193. To put that in perspective, David Wells’ career BABIP was .193. Tim Wakefield’s was .190. Mike Moustakas cannot possibly be expected to continue making outs on balls in play at this rate. Right?
Correspondingly, since we know his BABIP is going to come up, the rest of the numbers will experience a similar bump, because as we discussed above, Moustakas strikes out relatively infrequently. In fact, Moustakas is on pace to qualify for the batting title and K fewer than 100 times this season. Again looking back through a century worth of history, only 6 players have managed to strike out fewer than 100 times and post a BABIP under .225 (significantly above Moose’s number). Only 35 times since 1901 has a player posted a BABIP under .250 while qualifying for a batting title?
Sadly (perhaps because I am apparently a pessimist), rather than serving as confirmation of my long held faith in Moustakas, these numbers are only fortifying what I believe I’ve seen this year with my own eyes – namely, that Moustakas is making the weakest contact of anyone I’ve ever seen at this level. Most horrible hitters are so overmatched at the plate their K rates run them back to AAA or out of baseball quickly. Some players (Pedro Alvarez?) find a niche swinging from the heels in case they run into a pitch – which they occasionally do. Moustakas, on the other hand, seems to approach his plate appearances as if Ned Yost will have him running laps if he strikes out, so he puts the ball in play and goes back to his defensive station.
I hope that Mike Moustakas shakes off this slow start and becomes the star he was destined to be. Hell, I hope he makes an All-Star team ala Jim Presley (if I remember correctly, I watched that game at the Grand Canyon amidst a family vacation – and Presley didn’t play). All I know is that I can’t be a cheerleader any longer.