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.