Thursday, June 16, 2011


Let me start with the good stuff. I think Mike Moustakas was absolutely deserving of a major-league callup, and despite his superficially unimpressive numbers in Triple-A, I feel like his return engagement in Omaha could have hardly gone better.

Let’s go back to what Moustakas did last year. After missing the first couple of weeks of the season with a strained oblique muscle – perhaps a blessing, given his notorious struggles in cold weather in the early part of every season – he debuted for Northwest Arkansas with a bang, hitting two homers in his first game. In 66 games in Double-A, he hit .347/.413/.687, with 21 doubles and 25 homers. (And not that they mean anything, but he had 76 RBIs in 66 games.) His teammate Clint Robinson won the Texas League Triple Crown; Moustakas was on pace to beat Robinson in every category before he was promoted.

Moustakas continued to hit in Omaha, but his weaknesses were more exposed. He hit .293/.314/.564, with 15 homers and 16 doubles in 52 games. But he drew just eight walks, exposing Weakness #1: he’s too much of a free swinger.

After accounting for park effects, Moustakas actually hit right-handed pitching about as well in Triple-A as he did in Double-A; after clubbing right-handers for a .349/.421/.716 line at Northwest Arkansas, he hit .333/.356/.667 against them in Omaha. But after hitting .348/.426/.640 against southpaws in Double-A, Moustakas hit .222/.250/.383 against the more polished, craftier left-handers in Triple-A.

It’s a small sample size – just 81 at-bats – but the stats fit with the scouting narrative of Weakness #2: Moose is vulnerable to left-handed pitching.

Weakness #3 is no secret: Moustakas isn’t the most agile third baseman in the world. He has that squat, low-center-of-gravity body type that made a lot of scouts want to see what he could behind the plate, but doesn’t necessarily make for Gold Glove play at the hot corner. He has a cannon arm that compensates for his lack of range to some degree, but he’s still below-average overall.

So Moustakas returned to Omaha to start the year, and once again the cold weather – or something about the month of April – didn’t agree with him: he hit just .229/.304/.410. He hit four homers, but notably, just one double. With Eric Hosmer ahead of him in the lineup and hitting .439, the contrast was notable – one top prospect was clearly ready, and the other one clearly wasn’t.

But in May, Moustakas turned it on, hitting .321/.382/.560. His homers ticked up from four to five, but he smacked 11 doubles. In seven June games before he was called up, he hit .323 with three more doubles and a homer. His final line of .287/.347/.498 did not represent an improvement on his Omaha line from last season, but the trendline was very promising.

More importantly, look at his weaknesses:

He’s too much of a free swinger. Even in April, Moustakas drew nine walks, a number he matched in May. He drew 19 walks overall in 223 at-bats, after he walked eight times in 225 at-bats in Omaha last year. Not one of his 19 walks was intentional – the product of batting in front of Clint Robinson – so Moose actually had the highest walk rate of his career when he was called up.

This is meaningful. Moustakas is never going to be a 100-walk guy, not unless he hits for so much power that pitchers just refuse to throw him strikes, Sammy Sosa-style. He doesn’t need to draw 100 walks to be valuable. He simply needs to show enough discipline at the plate that pitchers know they need to challenge him. One of Moustakas’ strengths as a hitter is that he doesn’t strike out a lot for a power hitter, but his ability to make contact can make it tempting for him to swing at – and make weak outs on – pitches that other hitters can’t reach.

(The curse of easy contact is what has hamstrung the career of Josh Vitters, the player drafted immediately after Moustakas, and who the Royals were planning to pick until the morning of the draft. For four years, Josh Vitters has been described as having the prettiest swing you’ll ever see from a right-handed hitter, and he rarely strikes out – his career high is 65. But his career high in walks is 21, and he’s still trying to get out of Double-A.)

My worry with Moustakas was that if he reached the majors before his plate discipline improved, he’d be eaten alive. I hoped that another two months in Triple-A would prevent that. It appears that they have.

Moose is vulnerable to left-handed pitching. Small sample sizes and all that, but in 73 at-bats against lefties in Triple-A, Moustakas hit .260/.325/.507, a line not statistically distinguishable from his .300/.357/.493 line against right-handed pitchers. I suspect Moustakas will still struggle against left-handers more than Hosmer will, at least in the short term, but it doesn’t appear to be a crippling problem.

Moustakas isn’t the most agile third baseman in the world. At least from a scouting perspective, there’s no change here; Moustakas is a below-average, but playable, third baseman. There are legitimate long-term concerns with Moustakas, that if he gains any more weight in his lower half as he moves into his mid-to-late 20s, that he’ll have to move off the position. I wouldn’t be offering him any seven-year deals, let’s put it that way. Since his agent is Scott Boras, we’re probably not in any danger of that happening.

From a statistical perspective, though…traditional defensive stats are worthless at best, and misleading at worst. Minor league fielding stats are even worse. The only reason to look at fielding percentage would to make sure the number doesn’t start with an “8”. Moustakas’ career fielding percentage at third is .936; this year’s it .942. Those are low numbers for a major leaguer, but minor league fielding percentages generally improve in the majors owing to better field conditions.

But what strikes me as interesting about Moustakas’ fielding numbers is his range factor, which is simply the number of plays he makes per game. Compared to fielding percentage, range factor is 100 years more advanced; unfortunately, that’s the difference between the 1870s and the 1970s. But it’s something. And after never making more than 2.80 plays per game at third base, Moustakas’ range factor this season is 3.20.

For a third baseman to make 3.2 plays per game is astounding. Ryan Zimmerman and Scott Rolen, to take two Gold Glove third basemen of recent vintage, never made 3.2 plays per game, at either the major or minor league level. I don’t know that it means anything; maybe more balls were simply hit in the general direction of third base. You’d expect that if the Omaha pitching staff didn’t strike out a lot of guys – but they’ve averaged 7.3 Ks per 9 innings. You’d expect that if Omaha started a ton of left-handed pitchers – they’re a little above-average in that regard, as 25 of 66 starts have been made by lefties (mostly Duffy and Montgomery), but nothing exceptional.

Or maybe it’s a stone-cold fluke. Range factor, like RBIs, is subject to a lot of biases. A range factor of 3.20 is like having 65 RBIs in 55 games. You can have all those RBIs without being a great hitter, but you probably can’t have that many RBIs without being at least a good hitter. Moustakas probably can’t have a range factor that high without being at least a decent third baseman.

So anyway, even though the value of his performance in Omaha this year was no better than last year, I think Moustakas is significantly more ready for the majors now than he was at the start of the year. If there were any doubts about his plate discipline, they were dispelled when he drew a walk in each of his first four games. Moustakas is the first player in Royals history to draw a walk in the first four games of his career. Yeah, I didn’t see it coming either. But I’m glad it came.

Having said all that…I still don’t understand why he was called up when he was. As with Hosmer, it’s easy to let the excitement of having another piece of the puzzle on the roster overshadow the very real concerns with the timing.

First off, there’s a chance – a slim chance, but a chance – that Moustakas will still qualify as a Super Two. I take it on faith that the Royals would not have brought him up on June 9 unless they were absolutely, completely certain that he would not get the service time he needs. (It’s important to remember that the season started early this year, on March 31, which would move all the usual deadlines back a few days.) But what was the downside if they had waited another week and brought him up at the start of interleague play, which was apparently the plan? Was it really that important to get Mike Aviles off the roster? If they didn’t want to play Aviles at all, they could have just let him sit on the bench for a week. Mitch Maier could have given him pointers.

That is, I am hoping, a moot concern. What isn’t a concern is this: overnight, the Royals turned Wilson Betemit from an everyday third baseman into a bench player. And on this team, “bench player” means “cheerleader.” I really don’t know what the Royals think of Betemit. On the one hand, he’s an ex-Brave, and Dayton Moore signed him as a minor league free agent when he had washed out of the Yankees and White Sox organizations. On the other hand, all Betemit has done since he was promoted last year is hit, and evidently that has not been enough to impress the team’s brass.

Last season he hit .297/.378/.511 for the Royals, one of the great half-seasons in franchise history. The Royals’ response, from what I have heard, was to give Betemit a $1 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer; they were prepared to release him rather than go through arbitration if he wanted more. Perhaps surprisingly, he took it.

This season, Betemit is hitting .289/.348/.411 – not great numbers, but still well above-average in today’s world. (He was hitting .314/.379/.449 on May 30 before going into a 3-for-24 slide.) Two days ago, Buster Olney wrote, The Royals' Wilson Betemit is drawing a lot of interest from rival evaluators, because of his positional flexibility, because of his production and because he's damn cheap -- his salary this season is $1 million.”

If rival evaluators are coming to see Betemit play, they’re going to be disappointed. In the first five games since Moustakas was called up, Betemit didn’t get off the bench. The Royals gave him a spot start today, undoubtedly cognizant of the fact that he’s not going to increase his trade value growing splinters in his butt.

Betemit isn’t Jose Guillen here – this isn’t like the Royals refusing to take a look at Kila Ka’aihue so Guillen could pump his trade value enough to fetch…Kevin Pucetas, who was taken off the 40-man roster to make room for Moose. Betemit is a free agent at the end of the year, but he’s an above-average hitter at a key position, he’s a switch-hitter, he’s dirt cheap, and even if he’s not the best defender in the world, that has value. Plus, he might fetch a draft pick at the end of the season – although the odds of that go down with every game he sits out.

Maybe the Royals have been feverishly trying to trade Betemit since December with no luck, and just got tired of waiting. But it feels like the Royals are so committed to their youth movement that anyone who’s not a part of it is treated like an afterthought. Moustakas is ready – promote him! We’ll figure out what to do with Betemit afterwards!

The Royals feel like Betemit is not a part of their future on the field, and that’s fine; while he’s a talented and versatile player, the positions he can play are already spoken for in Kansas City. But Betemit does have a part in the Royals future, in the guise of whatever young talent he can bring back in a trade. Every day he sits on the bench is a wasted day for him, and a missed opportunity for the Royals.

That’s the strategic loss of promoting Moustakas last week. The tactical loss is this: Wilson Betemit is now the Royals’ backup shortstop. He is also the Royals’ backup second baseman. In the last three seasons, Betemit has played 57 innings at shortstop. He has played 16 innings at second base.

Admittedly, he has spent more time at both positions while in the minors. But the reality is that there’s no way Ned Yost is going to feel comfortable playing Betemit at either position, and short of an injury or a 17-1 game, I can’t imagine a situation in which Yost removes either Alcides Escobar or Chris Getz from a game.

Which means the Royals are now locked at not one, but two positions. The Royals have two players in their lineup who absolutely will not come out of a game – and who just happen to be the two weakest hitters in their lineup. The Royals only have three bench players as it is – generally Maier, Betemit, and whichever catcher isn’t starting. When you have only three bench players, and the two weakest hitters in your lineup are sacrosanct, you’re basically sending a message to the opposing team, a message that says, “Bring in any pitcher you want against my ballclub. I won’t retaliate.”

(And yes, I’m well aware that Escobar is 16 for his last 29, raising his batting average 40 points in the process. That doesn’t invalidate my criticism of Ned Yost for refusing to pinch-hit for him. My point was not that Escobar wasn’t capable of improvement – on the contrary, I have repeatedly praised Yost’s track record in developing young hitters. But the Royals can have their cake and eat it too – Escobar’s development as a hitter isn’t going to be hurt if they pinch-hit for him every now and then. No matter how well Escobar is hitting, against a tough right-handed closer with the game on the line, I’d rather have Mitch Maier at the plate. Yost hasn’t made that switch once this season, and with Wilson Freaking Betemit as the backup shortstop, you’re sure as hell not going to see it now.)

With interleague play about to start up, it would seem that the Royals would have to – please?! – send down their 13th pitcher to bring up another hitter, as otherwise they’re going to have four players (counting Butler) they can pinch-hit with, meaning they could easily run out of pinch-hitters in an extra-inning game and be forced to hit with Jeff Francis or something. Jarrod Dyson’s speed and defense would make him a useful player in that role. But unless the Royals recall Mike Aviles after one week (which I’m not sure is even allowed by the rules) or do something crazy like call up Irving Falu, the same problem will remain: Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar will play. Every inning. Of every game.

Is that the sign of a team that takes winning seriously?

Again, in the grand scheme of things, these are annoyances, not catastrophes. Not wringing the most value out of Wilson Betemit because Mike Moustakas was ready to be called up is a wasted opportunity. Mike Moustakas not being ready to be called up in the first place would be cause for alarm. Losing a few extra games this season because you placed the entire lineup in a straitjacket is frustrating. Losing a few extra games each of the next few seasons because your young players weren’t as good as you thought they were would be heartwrenching.

The narrative is the same as always. Dayton Moore & Co. are doing a bang-up job of developing young talent, and everything else is just details. But details do matter. Maybe one day they’ll get them right.