As writers, we generally tend to be conservative in our assertions, because it comes with a lower risk of being so wrong that we get laughed at by the Internet for the rest of our lives.
But as I sit here today with all of the knowledge that (I think) I have about predicting baseball, I’m telling you that, if healthy, Mike Moustakas will jump into the superstar category next season.
Here is some data on Moustakas’ last five seasons (every season except his shortened rookie season):
His strikeout rate has dropped in five consecutive seasons, which is amazing for a corner infielder with legitimate power that already began with a palatable mark. If you take a look at his contact rate, that too has risen in every season, lending credence to the belief that the drop in whiffs is a trending improvement in skill and not just statistical noise.
Is Moustakas sacrificing power for contact, though? No, he isn’t. Take FanGraph’s Hard% with a grain of salt, but it does attempt to measure the percentage of balls a hitter puts in play that are categorized in the hardest-hit category, and Moustakas’ percentage has seen a strong growth throughout his career, as shown in the table. Additionally, three of his four best ISO marks in his career have come in the last three seasons, with his career-high .260 ISO coming in 2016.
Now, it’d be disingenuous not to mention that his injury-shortened 2016 season consisted of just 27 games and 113 PA. But we could cut off the bottom row of that table, and Moustakas’ outlook would still be showing a strong upward incline. And even taking into account the small sample size last season, it still represented a step further in his growth as a hitter, not to mention the fact that many of these metrics stabilize extremely quickly. Moustakas doesn’t need to make any additional improvements from 2016 to 2017 in order for him to join the superstar ranks -- if he simply maintains his 2016 gains, he will be a legitimate force.
Now, controlling the strike zone involves both avoiding strikeouts and drawing walks, and thankfully, Moustakas has managed to improve in that category as well. His chase rate has dropped in each of the five seasons, and his walk rate has improved in a corresponding manner.
This combination of strike zone mastery and power is quite rare. To put it in perspective, the only two qualified hitters to match both Moustakas’ .260 ISO and 0.69 BB/K ratio this past season were David Ortiz and Josh Donaldson. Only Ben Zobrist had as low of a chase rate with as high of a contact rate.
So, what’s the problem, then? If everything sounds so rosy, why hasn’t Moustakas put up huge offensive numbers yet in his big league career? The answer is a rather large BABIP problem. Moustakas’ career BABIP sits at just .266, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s suffered woefully bad luck for his entire career. Hitters have quite a bit of influence on their baseline BABIP, and Moustakas is more culprit than victim. He may make a ton of contact and hit the ball hard, but the types of balls he does hit are not conducive to high BABIPs. Specifically, Moustakas hits a lot of fly balls, which are almost always turned into outs when they don’t leave the ballpark. And when he does hit balls on the ground, they are almost always of the pull variety, making him a very exploitable infield shift candidate. (Take a peek at his career spray chart.)
Thankfully, Moustakas has begun to make changes that may help this problem, too. His GB/FB ratio has risen each of the last five seasons, while his percentage of balls hit to the opposite field has set a new career-high in each of the past two seasons.
Steamer seems to buy into a lot of the offensive growth that I’ve just pointed out, as the projection system has Moustakas pegged for a 111 wRC+ that towers over his career 92 wRC+, and one that Moustakas has exceeded in just one of his six big league seasons.
He also plays quality defense, as UZR has rated him positively in each of the last five seasons, and his reputation around baseball largely matches that assessment. Quality offense plus quality defense equals a high-quality player. Although this might sound ridiculous at first, there may not be a huge difference between Moustakas and Nolan Arenado. For reference, Arenado’s career wRC+ is 110, and Steamer has him projected for a 2017 wRC+ of 114 that is remarkably close to its prediction for Moustakas.
If you’ve loved everything you’ve just read about Moustakas, and you happen to be the GM of a buying team this offseason, then you should be licking your chops, because Moustakas is probably available. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and Kansas City doesn’t seem particularly intent on contending in 2017 or extending him.
The real issue is finding a team where he'll fit, as most of the contenders already have a solid option at the hot corner, especially with the Dodgers’ reported re-signing of Justin Turner. The (mostly) obvious matches are the Giants and the Red Sox, and even they aren’t desperate. But if there is another team out there that really does buy into Moustakas the way that I do, and they think he’s being undervalued relative to the Royals’ asking price, then there are a few more matches that I could possibly see. The Indians could acquire him and move Jose Ramirez to another position or put him back in his super-utility role. The Dodgers still need a second baseman and could try Turner there for a season, should they acquire Moustakas. The Cardinals could use him. The Astros could decide that it’s a waste of Alex Bregman’s range to put him at third, and with Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve obviously entrenched up the middle, they could decide to move him for that big starting pitcher that they’ve been reportedly hunting all offseason (Chris Archer or Jose Quintana, for example).
However, regardless of what uniform(s) Mike Moustakas is donning next season, let it be known: he is about to destroy the league.
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Austin Yamada is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.