Sunday, August 14, 2011

Of Moose And Men.


Last night, Mike Moustakas played third base, as he has done in virtually every game since he was called up in early June, and batted 8th, as he has done in most every game since last Sunday – and, I’m guessing, never in his entire life before that.

He struck out in his first plate appearance against Jake Peavy. His second time up, he hit a liner right back to Peavy. His third time up, he jumped on a hanging breaking ball and lined it straight to the rightfielder. His final time at-bat, leading off the 9th against flamethrowing lefty Chris Sale with the Royals down a run, he grounded out weakly to the first baseman.

Four times up, four times made out, and it’s telling that having two hard-hit balls represents some kind of progress for Moustakas. Moustakas played in his 50th major-league game last night. After homering in his second career game, he hasn’t done so since. He endured a 2-for-49 stretch in mid-July, and after breaking out of that slump – if you can call going 7-for-27 a slumpbuster – he’s now 6-for-44 since. Since the 4th of July, Moustakas is 15-for-118, a .127 average, with just four extra-base hits (all doubles) and four walks. He’s 0-for-31 against the White Sox in his short career. He’s 4-for-47 against left-handed pitching. He’s 7-for-56 with runners in scoring position. From the 7th inning on, he’s 7-for-64. And so on.

Remember what a horrible hitter Alcides Escobar was before he suddenly caught fire in early June? After going 0-for-4 on June 6th, Escobar was hitting .203/.237/.236. In 212 at-bats, he had seven extra-base hits (all doubles) and nine walks.

In 183 at-bats, Moustakas is hitting .187/.241/.235 with seven extra-base hits (six doubles, one homer) and 13 walks. And he’s unlikely to contend for a Gold Glove at shortstop.

Prospects, even top prospects, have been known to struggle in their first exposure to major-league pitching. On some level, every rookie has endured the difficulties that Moustakas has dealt with. But very few rookies have endured this much difficulty.

How few? I decided to make a list of every third baseman who, in the year he debuted in the major leagues, batted 175 or more times with an OBP of under .250 and a slugging average of under .250.

Mike Moustakas is the first name on that list. He is also the last name on that list. No third baseman has ever debuted as poorly as Moustakas has in so many at-bats.

So I decided to expand the list to look at players at any position, with the same criteria as above – 175+ plate appearances, sub-.250 OBP and sub-.250 SLG. Seven other players met those criteria – but just one since 1972, and just three since World War II.

The only player of my lifetime with such a horrible debut was Brandon Inge, whose career is intertwined with Moustakas in an interesting way. Inge came up as a highly-touted catcher in 2001; he had been #67 on Baseball America’s Prospect List that spring. He hit .180/.215/.238 in 79 games. This being the early-21st-century Tigers, they had no better options other than to let him continue to play. In 2002 Inge inched forward to a line of .202/.266/.333; in 2003 he moved another millimeter to .203/.265/.339, and was still allowed to play in 104 games, doing his part as the Tigers lost 119 games that year.

Rather than giving up on Inge, the Tigers decided to move him to third base, where the offensive expectations were higher – and it worked beautifully, as from 2004 to 2006 Inge hit .265/.327/.443 and was a shockingly smooth defender. His stunning improvement mirrored that of the Tigers, as they rose to the AL pennant in 2006.

They won the pennant that year, but lost the division, blowing a big lead to the Twins and settling for the wild-card spot. They lost the division because they were swept in a season-ending series by the Royals. This was arguably more painful for the Royals than for the Tigers – by sweeping Detroit, the Royals wound up one game “ahead” of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the worst record in baseball – the Rays wound up with the first pick, the Royals with the second.

As I detailed here, on the season’s final day, had Brandon Inge simply managed to put the ball in play in the bottom of the 11th inning, the Tigers would have won the AL Central, and the Royals would have had the #1 overall pick instead. But he struck out. The Rays drafted #1, and took the clear #1 player in the draft, David Price. The Royals drafted #2, and they took…Mike Moustakas.

That eerie connection aside, most of the other players with horrible debuts never amounted to anything. The only other player to wind up with a career of note was Billy Rogell, who as an overmatched 20-year-old with the 1925 Red Sox hit .195/.244/.237. Rogell would eventually resurface five years later with Detroit, and from 1932 to 1938 was one of the better shortstops in the league, hitting .278/.366/.386 with above-average defense.

I don’t know what this means for Moustakas. His struggles notwithstanding, he’s not the second coming of Brandon Wood. Wood was done in by a historic amount of swing-and-miss – when the Angels released him earlier this year, he had a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 153-to-13. Moustakas could stand to be more patient, but he has just 32 strikeouts in 187 at-bats, a pace of around 90-100 strikeouts over a full season. If anything, his problem is that he’s too afraid of not making contact – he’s putting the first decent pitch into play, leading to a lot of easy outs. His batting average on balls in play is just .219. That’s suggestive of a lot of weak contact, but also suggestive of some bad luck.

I’m not sure what ails Moustakas, but I do know that the standard prescription for his ailment is some remedial time in Omaha. The Royals have all but ruled that out, however. As Ned Yost said in today’s edition of the Kansas City Star:

“You don’t send him down for the same reason they didn’t send George Brett, Mike Schmidt or Robin Yount down after 250 at-bats and hitting .215.”

Except when Mike Schmidt was a rookie and hit .196, he also walked 52 times and hit 18 homers, for a respectable .324 OBP and .373 slugging average. When Brett had as many career plate appearances (205) as Moustakas has now, on June 27, 1973, his career line was .232/.272/.295 – poor numbers, but still substantially better than Moose’s. And Brett was just 20 years old at the time. Yount hit .250/.276/.346 as a rookie, and he was 18 years old.

“This is the same thing. This is nothing new. He’s not breaking any ground here.”

Unfortunately, he is. I’m not saying I know what the solution is. I’m just saying that Moustakas’ struggles so far are not the typical ones endured by a rookie. And so long as the Royals hand-wave his performance away as “not breaking any ground,” they’re unlikely to figure out the solution either.

21 comments:

Nathan said...

You know, Royals prospects and players sometimes struggle to draw walks or hit for average, but they always struggle to hit for power. Some of it is park effects. But given franchise history, I wonder, is somebody telling Moustakas to just try and make contact? Sometimes I just worry about the overall philosophy of a franchise that has had a Hall of Fame hitter, but has not developed one slugger in its entire history.

Last Royals Fan said...

Given the point in the season I think the team is making the right decision to stick with Moose and let him try to work through his issues. If this were June I'd say get him back to Omaha for some remedial work, but with only a few weeks left in their season that makes little sense.

Yost's patience to let guys 'work through it' paid of with Escobar and to an extent with Hochevar, so maybe there is hope that Moose will find his way through.

What is interesting though is Yost's statement that he plans to use Getz as a late inning defensive replacement for Giavotella. If the above mentioned players need to 'work through it' why wouldn't he extend the same approach to Gio's defensive skills?

Bryan said...

Last-

I agree with you and there seems to be a lot of weird logic going on. I think the only thing to surmise is that if Nedder believes the talent is there and can be improved upon he will stick with the guy. I think what he is saying is that Gio has no hope with the glove. Which is probably worse than just letting Gio work on it.

The Royals could field the best all offense no defense team out there. Butler, Gio, Pena, Cabrera.

McGoldencrown said...

Nathan, Im pretty sure Steve "Bye, Bye" Balbonie was a slugger. John Mayberry was also. Danny Tartabull also in his 5 KC seasons. Kauffman is a hard place to hit a home run, deal with it.

KHAZAD said...

I did a little comparison saturday before the game.
OPS First 201 MLB PA's:
Clint Hurdle: (Famous highly touted Royal thought to be a bust) .698
Kila: .634
TPJ: .611
Robin Ventura: (Good hitter famous for his poor start) .596
Mario Mendoza: (Famous bad hitter)
.491
Moose: .486

It is not as if he is learning either. He is regressing, has lost confidence, has no ides about his swing, and it is getting worse. If we keep him up here the rest of the season, we may irreparably damage his psyche and his future. We need to send him down for his own good, and for the team's 2012.

OPS pre all star break:.577
Post break (through saturday):.389
August: .301

Let him work on this in low pressure Omaha.

OPS pre break:

KHAZAD said...

Correction. Ventura was .565

RA said...

You will not see too many guys fair well in the majors when hitting below .300 at AAA. He was not ready for prime time. Needed a full season at Omaha and possibly a repeat next year.

John said...

If a guy gets his psyche "irreparably damaged" by failing in his first go-round in the major leagues, then he was never going to be any kind of player in the first place. A player who can't learn from failure, make the necessary adjustments, and bounce back is not a player who has what it takes.

The time to send Moustakas back to Triple-A was a month ago. There's no point in doing it now, send him down for three weeks and then bring him back when the rosters expand. That's a bush league Logan Morrison-type move--something you'd do just to embarrass a young player.

Let him play out the season and hopefully work through his problems, even if he hits .180. He'll have four months to play winter ball or whatever else and learn from the experience.

Mayo said...

A little off topic, but did you see the A's have moved Grant Green to centerfield and some question whether he has the wheels to play out there. I know many commentators wanted the Royals to take him with the 12th pick (the Aaron Crow pick), but I think that was primarily because he was an offensive minded shortstop. Well, he isn't a shortstop and Crow is a reliever (til next year). But, right now, it looks like Crow was the right pick.

kcghost said...

Not much choice but to let Moose play and work his way out of it.

I am far more worried about starting pitching than I am am Moose, anyway. Despite all the great minor league pitching performances by starters in 2010, they have all regressed or been injured in 2011.

Kid Twist said...

Ya' never know but it sure looks bad right now. No doubt the longer it goes, the more it'll mess with his head! Right now he looks as defeated as Kila did back in May.

JJSKCK said...

McGoldencrown - I think Nathan's key word is "developed". Balboni and Mayberry each spent their first 5 professional seasons with the organizations that drafted them (Yankees and Astros, respectively). And Tartabull had already hit 25 home runs as a rookie for Seattle by the time the Royals acquired him.

By the way, Tartabull's numbers for KC were outstanding. It's easy to forget how good he was.

Michael said...

They developed Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney, and George. Beltran has 295 hr's and counting, Sweeney had 215 (and would have had many more had it not been for injuries) and George of course hit 317. Those aren't 500+ home run guys, but they are pretty good nonetheless.

Kenneth said...

Imagine my suprise to log on to the website on Aug 15th to find an article about ... Moose ?

I would take this to mean you feel Bubba's signing will be devoid of drama.

I would agree with most of the posters here. It doesn't make any sense to send Moose down at the end of the season. Who would play 3b anyways ? We were all excited about the Yost hiring particularly because of his experience with young players in Milwaukee. Let's give the guy with a proven track record more than a season before we wonder what the hell he is doing.

Nathan said...

Excellent hitters though they were, neither Beltran nor Sweeney ever hit 30 home runs in a season for KC. That those names come to mind when listing the franchise's home-grown power hitters kind of proves my point.

ChaimMKeller said...

Last Royals Fan:

You can work on defense without needing major league hitters opposing you to the best of their ability to provide the balls.

You can't really work on hitting major league pitching without facing major league pitchers who are trying to get you out.

Drew Milner said...

What gets me is all the pundits saying how much better he looks the past 2 weeks. BS. Send him down for his own good and the good of the team. Oh, I forgot, we don't have a third baseman, we traded both Betemit and Aviles away. We don't even have a backup third baseman or SS.

Fast Eddie said...

Of course, Moustakas and Inge are connected in another way. The man who replaced Inge at 3B in Detroit was replaced by Moose at 3B in KC.

McGoldencrown said...

It was speculated that Yam Navarro would assume Gio's 2B job at AAA when the 2 swapped ML roster spots, but if you look, he has played 3B in Omaha. There is your Moose insurance boys and girls. Unless Alex moves in 150 ft, the cubbard is bare in house until '14 when Chester arrives.

I will state the obvious. Moose looks like a huge bust. The warning signs have always been there, so I dont think anyone should be too surprised. Still, I did think he would handle RHP's.

It would appear he hasnt been a good match with Seitzer at all. He tries to pull everything and Seitz hates that. I think Moose wants help, but cant get himself to buy into the new swing. Thus, he is helplessly lost somewhere in between. See: Travis Snider, Matt LaPorta

John said...

He's a "huge bust" after struggling in 55 major-league games at the age of 22? I guess the Royals should just release him now, then. No point in keeping a huge bust around, is there?

Sure, he might figure things out and hit 30 home runs for the Red Sox in 2014 or something like that, but he's already proven that he's a miserable failure in K.C. Cut Moustakas now!

Jason and Kirstin said...

Since posting this article, Moose has gone 7-18, for a .389 average. Funny how these things happen.