How Mike Moustakas learned to stop worrying and beat the shift

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The reinvention of Mike Moustakas started over the winter, when he sidled up to a tee or stood in for a soft-toss session. Every ball he hit went to the left side. Moustakas always relied on his hands, quick as a mousetrap, to help him punish baseballs, and in this case they were of particular importance, because without their cooperation he was bound to be the same ineffective hitter of a year earlier.

What drove the Kansas City Royals' third baseman to this place was an abdication of pride, a grand survival instinct and a realization that he loves playing baseball enough to change. Forever a pull-happy left-handed power hitter, Moustakas no longer could be that if he wanted to be an effective major leaguer, because the widespread defensive shifting he saw last season defeated him, and doubling down wasn't the answer.

"Last year, I was really stubborn," Moustakas said. "I didn't think I could get beat by the shift. I felt like I could hit through it. I realized I can't."

Mike Moustakas is making contact on more than 94 percent of pitches in the strike zone. (AP)
Mike Moustakas is making contact on more than 94 percent of pitches in the strike zone. (AP)

No other major leaguer has copped to this reality, though Moustakas' transformation early this season could well offer a template for learning how to defeat the shift. In 27 games, Moustakas has as many hits to left field this season as he did all of last year. His 18 opposite-field hits lead baseball. Less than a year after a demotion to Triple-A, Moustakas is hitting above .300, making contact on more than 94 percent of pitches in the strike zone and not just batting second but making Ned Yost look brilliant for putting him there.

"He's probably the best hitter on our team all-around," Royals outfielder Alex Gordon said. "Going the other way, working counts – that's why he's in the two-hole for us."

Should Moustakas' production hold, certainly those upon whom shifts have wreaked havoc as they further proliferate will reach out to him seeking counsel. Already this year, according to Baseball Info Solutions, shifting is up 34 percent across the game, putting teams on pace for nearly 18,000 shifts – or one in every 10 or so plate appearances. The novelty of five years ago, when a handful of teams combined for 2,464 shifts, is now an ingrained part of the game. And in baseball, doing the same illogical thing again and again – like, say, pulling the ball into a shift that stacks five of the seven available defensive players on the same side of the field – is a time-honored tradition.

Moustakas, 26, considered such rationale and found it as stupid as it sounds. He was not David Ortiz, the king of the shift who has managed to hit through it. Nor was he Robinson Cano, a left-handed hitter so pure teams rarely, if ever, realigned their fielders. Moustakas was vulnerable, something he learned on opening day 2014, when Detroit wheeled around its defense. He panicked, hit a pair of groundballs into the shift and spent the next seven weeks flailing similarly before the Royals shipped him to Triple-A.

"I was still a good hitter," Moustakas said. "That shift really hurt me a lot. I remember 10 or 15 balls where I'd hit line drives past the second baseman, and there'd be a guy just camped out there in short right field ready to catch it. After doing that for a full season, I told myself I can't do this anymore. I can't continue to bury myself into this shift. I know that I'm a good hitter. I know I have the ability to go the other way."

Kansas City took Moustakas with the second pick of the 2007 draft after he set a California state high school record for home runs. He went back and watched video of himself from those days, if only to see the confidence with which he once carried himself. Though it had disappeared amid the more than 200 shifts he faced last season, Moustakas saw enough elsewhere to know he could beat it.

When he was driving to Triple-A Omaha, Moustakas took calls from Tom Meusborn, his coach at Chatsworth High, and Brian Rupp, a longtime manager in the Royals' organization. Both told him he would figure things out. And a little more than a week in the minor leagues reminded him that the Royals' expectations of a .260 to .280 hitter with 20 to 25 home runs weren't all that far in the past.

"That was before they started shifting him," Yost said. "And then you see the shift, and the way he was going about it, and it's like, 'Maybe we're going to have to lower our expectations. Maybe the kid's gonna hit .220.' He put a stop to that. He said that's not gonna happen. I'm gonna find a way to beat this."

Rather than change his entire approach midseason, Moustakas started working with hitting coach Dale Sveum on battling with two strikes. As Eno Sarris wrote, Moustakas was as good as any player in 2014 at fouling off two-strike pitches compared to those on zero- and one-strike counts. It was his hands, always supple, ever trustworthy. The qualities that behooved him there would do the same when he committed to hitting the opposite way.

Phase two came during the playoffs, when the ugliness of Moustakas' .212 regular-season batting average wasn't on the scoreboard, taunting him nightly. It was a fresh start, his last power hurrah, because he knew the five home runs he hit during the postseason would not be the norm in 2015.

Moustakas' 18 opposite-field hits lead baseball. (AP)
Moustakas' 18 opposite-field hits lead baseball. (AP)

The overhaul was severe. In the past, Moustakas saw a fastball and his first instinct was to hit it to right-center field. On fastballs now, he wants to poke them to left field. Rather than the general idea of "letting the ball travel deep" – a phrase Sveum loathes – he talks with Moustakas about the idea of the ball traveling toward the plate in increments. Every ball is three inches wide, so waiting an extra ball or ball-and-a-half means a hitter must discipline himself from hitting the ball in front of the plate, as so many successful pull hitters do.

Some would fail under such a strategy. Moustakas' hands are quick enough to wait an extra ball or two and still power line drives to left field. With one fielder on that side of the diamond, the real estate is inviting enough that it didn't take Moustakas long to buy into his new philosophy.

"This offseason I made it a point," he said. "I'd rather hit around .300 with less home runs than hit .212 with 15. It wasn't so much about changing my swing as much as changing the thought process behind my swing and where I wanted to hit the ball. You've got to swallow your pride and realize that if there are going to be five guys on one side of the field, you probably should just take your hits the other way."

It's a humbling thing to admit, the sort that is far more commonplace for pitchers, who lose the juice in their fastballs and evolve into finesse pitchers. While Moustakas' strengths do help – his contact rate, though higher than ever, always has been strong – most hitters trying a new philosophy or stance will abandon it at first failure. "The ego doesn't allow that sometimes," Sveum said. "You take your ego out of hitting, and you become a much better hitter."

Moustakas is just that, the rare player who 2,000 plate appearances into his career blossoms into something altogether different. The sample is small, of course, but the breakout is rooted in the proper approach backed by a skill set to sustain it. The hope is for teams to pare back their shifts – and, as Ben Lindbergh wrote, that's happening already, with teams recognizing his pull percentage is down from more than 50 percent last season to around one in three swings this year.

"Until then, I'll take those cheap hits to the left side," Moustakas said, and he chuckled, the old power hitter in him surfacing. What he calls cheap, everyone else sees as functional. Getting on base is getting on base, and no matter how it's done, it's not cheap if it's consistent.

Moustakas whacked three more hits Thursday to raise his batting average to .330, more than twice what it was on this day last season. Two went to right field and one to center field. Nobody said he was one-dimensional. It's a new year, a new philosophy, a new player as unlikely as any: Mike Moustakas, the first man to beat the shift.

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