[Editor's Note: This is Eric's first article with us! Welcome him aboard.]
Mike Moustakas has played enough poor baseball since 2011 to dull his once sparkling prospect shine into a finish of mediocrity and low expectations. From 2011 through 2014, Moustakas appeared in 514 games and accrued nearly 2,000 plate appearances. He put up a triple slash of .236/.290/.379 and an OPS+ of 82. In other words, Moustakas’s adjusted batting heading into 2015 equaled the production that Brayan Pena and Ryan Flaherty posted in 2014. He did have a good postseason, but it was not quite the hopeful one that Pablo Sandoval had. Moustakas hit five home runs in 15 postseason games en route to a .435 slugging percentage, but he also had an average of .217 with a .250 on base percentage.
What Moustakas has done in a month and over 100 plate appearances in 2015 is quite different. He’s hitting for average; he’s getting on base; and he’s hitting for power. Mike Moustakas is excelling, and he’s doing so in a pretty weird way.
Here’s what’s different in terms of results: Moustakas is hitting .324/.384/.471and has a OPS+ of 135. That’s all very good, because it’s very different from what we now expect.
Here’s what’s different that has contributed to those results. Moustakas's 3.5 percent walk rate is about half of his 7 percent walk rate from 2014, and it’s notably smaller than his career 6.3 percent rate. But along with decreased walks, Moustakas has also been striking out less. Through Sunday’s game, he’s struck out in 9.6 percent of his plate appearances. Again, this mark is noticeably lower than his 2014 14.8 percent strikeout rate, as well as his career rate of 16.3. What’s interesting about these figures is that they amount to a strikeout to walk ratio in 2015 that is almost exactly in line with his career rate: 0.36 against 0.38. In a way, Moustakas is changing by staying the same.
The lower walk and strikeout rates relate to the most substantive difference in Moustakas’s game: his contact rate. Moustakas’s 2015 O- and Z-Swing rates, 35.4 and 68.7 percent, respectively, are almost exactly in line with his career norms of 35.5 and 68.4 percent, respectively. His swing rate, 50 percent, is a tick above his 48.8 percent career swing rate. His contact rate, however, is all the way up to 88.3 percent, which is quite a bit better than his 82.3 percent career rate.
Comparing the 2015 season so far to 2014, there’s no difference in Moustakas’s O-Contact rate, but there’s a notable disparity between his 2014 and 2015 Z-Contact rates. In 2014, Moustakas made contact with 79.7 percent of balls outside of the strike zone — and he’s done so 79.8 percent of the time in 2015. In 2014, Moustakas made contact with 87.5 percent of balls within the strike zone, but in 2015 he’s made contact 94.4 percent of the time. That improved profile might be a sign of improvement, but it also might indicate that pitchers don’t fear Moustakas. He’s seeing more fastballs than he ever has — 59.4 percent against a career 53.6 percent. And still, he has to do something positive with those batted balls.
Moustakas’s batted ball profile is not dramatically different from years past. He’s exchanging some fly balls for line drives. So far in 2015, he’s hit 40.4 percent of his balls on the ground, which is close to the 38.6 percent of grounders he hit 2014 and is not far from his career 36.9 rate. Something that might account for increased production is his line drive rate: it currently sits at 22.5 — three ticks above his rate last year and four above his career rate. This would be a better sign if his groundball rate declined, but instead his fly ball rate has dipped to 37.1 percent, which is quite a bit lower than his 44.2 percent rate. This could, in the end, yield fewer home runs.
The most dramatic difference in Moustaka’s batted ball profile isn’t found in line drives or fly balls, however. Instead, it’s in infield hits. Moustakas’s infield hit percentage this season is 11.1 percent. That’s not an unreasonable rate for certain types of players. Ichiro, for instance, has a career infield hit rate of 12.6 percent. But Moustakas is not the type of player one expects to get a lot of infield hits. Moustakas is six feet tall but weighs over 200 pounds, and he’s mustered three triples and 11 stolen bases so far in his career. So yes: Moustakas’s infield hit rate is probably not sustainable. But that really doesn’t tell us much. Each of Moustakas’s six infield hits were, naturally, singles. He’s also slugging .471, and he has as many doubles as infield hits.
While the infield has been friendly to Moustakas, it is also a site of worry. His infield fly ball rate so far in 2015 is 30.3 percent—twelve points higher than his 18 percent career rate. So while Moustakas’s fly ball rate has diminished, which might signal fewer dingers, his infield fly ball rate has swelled—no infield flies result in long balls. Moustakas has begun 2015 with an odd profile, indeed.
Moustakas is at a point in his career where proof trumps projection. Given his results and the factors that contributed to them, it’s natural to say something about whether or not his start is sustainable or not. But the answer to that seems pretty clear: nope. Until he shows us otherwise, that is.
Sustainability isn’t really the most engaging part of Moustakas’s great start to 2015. What’s most interesting is that we, as observers, are at a point where our idea of Moustakas has completely altered from what we thought we knew about him in 2010 or 2011. A lot has changed since then. We’re more inclined to disbelieve progress at the moment. The fact that we can point to balls hit to the infield as a reason for improvement as well as worry goes to show that the odd way Moutsakas has excelled in 2015 is more compelling than whether or not he can keep it up.