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Royals' Moustakas leading charge of rising sophomores

Before his first game in the Bronx, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas walked out beyond the centerfield fence and visited Monument Park. He soaked in the history, read the remembrances of the all-time great players and took note of the plaques celebrating the legacy of George Steinbrenner and commemorating the tragedy of 9/11.

"I know it's not the old Yankee Stadium," he said, "but it's still Yankee Stadium."

None of the players he grew up watching had their careers cast in bronze yet, in part because Moustakas is only 23 and one of the players he most remembers -- Derek Jeter -- was in the opposing dugout, still an active player.

That evening Moustakas, batting cleanup, homered off the rightfield foul pole in his first at bat, barely a year after his teammate, Eric Hosmer, became the youngest player to homer at new Yankee Stadium at the age of 21 years and 199 days. That was the first home run of the first baseman's big league career. The next night he hit his second, and Hosmer's breakout debut season was underway.

Last year, Hosmer and Moustakas, Kansas City's top two hitting prospects, had divergent rookie campaigns. Hosmer batted .293 with 19 home runs and a .799 OPS in 128 games, reinforcing everyone's projections of greatness. Moustakas, on the other hand, was batting as low as .182 on Aug. 16; only a furious six-week rally to end the season raised his average to .263, but he still hit only five home runs in 89 games.

In 2012, however, their roles have reversed. Hosmer, now 22, is batting just .191, though he seems to have suffered significant bad luck -- his batting average on balls in play is also .191, more than 100 points below the league average -- and has had an encouraging week; he is 6-for-18 since taking a two-day hiatus to clear his head, including a three-hit game against the Yankees on Wednesday night.

Moustakas is hitting .279, which may only be 16 points better than last year, but his power has returned. The one-time minor league home run leader -- he hit 36 split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010 -- has already hit seven in 2012. He's slugging .497, three points behind the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera for best among AL third baseman, and his OPS is .830, second behind Cabrera's .847.

If there's a lesson to be gleaned, it's the volatility of a young player's first few seasons. Whether it's the so-called sophomore jinx or a rapid refinement with experience, the peaks and valleys are more pronounced early on.

"Thinking about it, I was 22, 23 years old playing major league baseball with the best pitchers in the world and against the best competition in the world," Moustakas said. "All that stuff's going to come. I was just worried about getting comfortable, getting my feet wet and figuring out how things operate."

That included learning the rigors of major league travel and its long six-month schedule. More importantly, Moustakas had 365 plate appearances against big league pitchers, allowing him to adjust to their new plans of attack -- pounding him inside, for instance, or pitching backwards in counts (like using offspeed pitches in fastball counts.

Early last August Kansas City manager Ned Yost kept Moustakas out of the lineup for two days -- similar to the tactic used last week with Hosmer -- and allowed him and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer to get to work. Among the changes was getting Moose not to do too much with his front side, which he was leaning on to generate power, yet making him vulnerable on offspeed pitches.

Moustakas heeded the advice and from that point on he hit .379 (53-for-140) with four of his five home runs. Including the first part of the 2012 season, Moustakas has hit .328 since last Aug. 17, the ninth-best average in baseball.

"When you start struggling in baseball, you start making adjustments," Moustakas said. "Sometimes the adjustments aren't the right ones to make. I started making adjustments here and there that weren't good. It kind of went downhill, and then I started to make adjustments after that instead of just going back to what I know worked."

Moustakas had, in the words of Seitzer, "accomplished everything that he had needed to accomplish in the minor leagues." Therefore, despite his struggles, there was little to be gained by a demotion, especially when the Royals weren't in contention and stood to benefit more from the young player receiving steady playing time. And his end-of-year surge gave him a confidence boost into the offseason.

"It helped a lot," he said. "I went through a rough time, but I was able to battle back and get out of that slump. My teammates were huge in that. They came up to me every day and said, 'You're doing all right. Things are going to be okay.' It was every day. I believed it. At some point you have to start believing it."

Over the winter Moustakas also sought the counsel of his uncle, Tom Robson, who was a hitting coach alongside manager Bobby Valentine with the Rangers, Mets and Chiba Lotte in Japan. (Robson also was the hitting coach with the Reds.) Robson worked with Moustakas on techniques that had made him so successful in Double A and even earlier in his career -- and, again, now.

Moustakas isn't the only second-year player whose fortunes have changed this year. Here are four more who are enjoying much better seasons than they had as rookies:

Jose Altuve, Astros 2B

Houston's 5'5" second baseman hit for a respectable average last year (.276) but drew only five walks in 234 plate appearances -- or one every 46.8 PAs, the majors' second-worst rate among players who batted at least that many times -- and had only 13 extra-base hits. In only 182 plate appearances in 2012, however, he's exceeded both totals, having walked 13 times (one every 14 PAs) and having smacked 15 extra-base hits while improving his average to .309.

Andy Dirks, Tigers LF

Dirks struggled in his first taste of big-league action last year, batting .251 with a .296 on-base percentage while playing a utility outfield role. This season, however, he has received steady at bats in leftfield and the Tigers' decision to give him consistent playing time has paid off: He's batting .321 with a .904 OPS that is 201 points higher than his was last year and 165 points higher than the .739 league average for the position.

Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays SP

As the top prospect acquired in Toronto's trade of Roy Halladay to Philadelphia in Dec. 2009 and the son of former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, Kyle Drabek understandably arrived with considerable hype. Yet he was just 4-8 with a 5.83 ERA in his first 95 2/3 big league innings in 2010 and '11. He was no sure bet to crack the Opening Day rotation this spring but won the job in training camp and hasn't looked back. Drabek is 4-4 with a 3.27 ERA in 52 1/3 innings over nine starts. In only two outings has he allowed more than two runs.

Josh Reddick, Athletics RF

In 125 plate appearances in 2009 and '10 Reddick had a paltry .182/.208/.331 line with the Red Sox, numbers that rose to .280/.327/.457 with seven homers in 278 PAs in 2011, which was officially his rookie year. While trades to Oakland and its cavernous ballpark rarely unleash a player's latent power, Reddick has packed a considerable punch since joining the Athletics, hitting 11 homers in 43 games and doing so at roughly the same rate home or away. (He has five HRs in 20 home games and six HRs in 23 road games.) His overall line is .272/.337/.527 and his .864 OPS ranks first on the team.