Royals' Mike Moustakas finding ways to beat defensive shifts
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Everyone in the Royals dugout was hanging on the top step when Mike Moustakas stepped to the plate Friday night. He had already accomplished three legs of the cycle, and all that was missing was a home run.
Yankees reliever Jose Ramirez delivered the pitch, one that the left-handed Moustakas could only try poking to right field. He nearly got enough of it anyway, the ball floating through the air for what seemed like an eternity before bouncing halfway up the outfield wall.
It wound up being a double, capping a 4 for 4 night. But while Moustakas may have come up short of the cycle, he still made a big statement: These days, he can go the other way.
You see, the Royals third baseman has struggled the past couple years to deal with teams shifting on him. In fact, only nine other players watched an opponent slide its own third baseman to the right side of the infield more often last year than Moustakas, whose natural tendency to pull the ball resulted in a career-worst .212 batting average.
So this past offseason, Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum asked Moustakas what he wanted to accomplish before spring training. The answer was quite simple.
''Beating the shift was obviously a priority,'' Moustakas said.
That may seem like a ''no-duh'' answer, but in reality it's quite rare. First, many power hitters view the shift as an affront - their ego dictates that they would rather power balls over it than spray a single the other way. Second, making the necessary mental and mechanical adjustments often takes months of hard work, often requiring two steps backward for each step forward.
It can be humbling process, leading to humiliating results. But if Moustakas was ever going to live up to expectations as a former first-round pick, he knew it was necessary.
The work has paid off. This season, he's hitting .319.
''We always though Mike would have the capacity at the big league level to hit somewhere between .260 and .280, would be a reasonable number, with 20, 25 home runs and 80 to 100 RBIs,'' Royals manager Ned Yost explained. ''Then you saw the shift and the way he was going about it, and we said, `OK, maybe we need to lower our expectations here. The kid is going to hit .220.''
Moustakas is hardly alone in having to deal with the shift.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts used in Major League Baseball rose from 8,180 two years ago to 13,296 last season. That translated to an estimated 195 runs saved.
By comparison, there were only 2,464 shifts used during the entire 2010 season.
Even among the AL champion Royals, Moustakas was not alone. First baseman Eric Hosmer and outfielder Alex Gordon have had to deal with teams sliding to the right against them, though both of them are proficient enough at going the other way to make opponents pay for it.
It took countless hours of work for Moustakas to do the same thing. And while he doesn't like to discuss the details - his slight change in hand position, his altered stride, balance and weight shift - he is willing to give Sveum the credit for helping him to change.
''Just going up there and hitting the baseball in general is tough,'' Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain said, ''but to put in the work this offseason, to come into spring training with the goal in mind that I'm going to hit the other way, bunt sometimes, make them play me in a normal defense - he's stuck to it, sticking to it, and I'm definitely happy for him.''
Nobody is happier than Yost. Not only is his third baseman hitting over .300, Moustakas has also succeeded in doing something that the manager never could while he was a player.
''Of course, I wasn't as talented as Mike Moustakas,'' Yost said. ''But I could never do it. I was a dead-pull hitter and I could never adjust my swing. Hard as I tried, I never could do it.''
The numbers demonstrate the progress.
Last season, Moustakas hit 106 groundballs to the right side of the infield and just 15 to the left, according to STATS. This season, he's hit 33 to the right and six to the left. Even more pronounced are line drives, which Moustakas hit 45 times to right field last season and 10 to left. He's hit just three liners to right and 13 to left this season.
His batting average on balls in play was just .220 a year ago, in part due to lousy luck and in part due to constantly hitting into the shift. This season, that same average is a robust .333.
In other words, Moustakas is getting better at going to all fields. It's exactly what he set out to do when Sveum approached him in the offseason, asking what he wanted to accomplish.
''Every hit is gratifying. It doesn't matter if it's a single or a double. A hit's a hit,'' Moustakas said. ''It's just gratifying to be able to help the team win a ballgame.''