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Glowing scouting reports and minor-league numbers are no guarantees of major-league success. While both are intensely valuable and help us project future big-league stars far better than we otherwise could, there’s something special about the jump from Triple-A to the major leagues that proves too much for some top prospects.

Brandon Wood is perhaps the quintessential example of this phenomenon in recent years. Drafted as a prep star from Scottsdale, Arizona, by the Los Angeles Angels in the first round of the 2003 draft, the 6-foot-3 shortstop had high expectations placed on his shoulders. The hype got out of control after the 2005 season, in which he hit 43 home runs for High-A Rancho Cucamonga in the Cal League. Baseball America ranked him the third-best prospect in baseball prior to the 2006 season. The next year, Baseball Prospectus got into the act and dubbed him the fifth-best prospect in the game.

The hype train sped forward, and with seemingly good reason. He hit .276/.355/.552 with 25 homers for Double-A Arkansas in 2006 and .272/.338/.497 with 23 homers the next year with Triple-A Salt Lake City. It was that 2007 season in which Brandon Wood made his major-league debut, though it was really just a smattering of plate appearances here and there, with separate stints in late-April, July, and September. All in all, it was a mere 33 plate appearances and his .152/.152/.273 slash line didn’t matter much.

The next year, at age 23, Wood only hit .200/.224/.327 with a 43 OPS+ in 257 plate appearances. Angels fans began to get nervous. Here was a consensus top prospect in baseball getting overpowered in the majors. It continued for the next three years. In a combined 751 plate appearances over five years, Brandon Wood compiled a .186/.225/.289 slash line with 18 homers and a career 40 OPS+. He last played for the Sugar Land Skeeters in the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball—the same team for which Tracy McGrady threw 6 2/3 innings and posted a 6.75 ERA with no strikeouts in 2014.

The Arizona native could never make the jump from Triple-A to the majors. Even in 2008, when he struggled in 55 games with the Angels, he still mashed 31 homers with a .970 OPS in Triple-A Salt Lake. Some talent was obviously present. Approach and strikeout issues, however, dogged him in the big leagues and rendered his power unusable.

The Angels and the Pittsburgh Pirates presented him with multiple chances over five different seasons to make it work. Sometimes it takes a few years to click. Chris Davis bounced between Triple-A and the majors for four years before he busted out with 33 homers and a .827 OPS, only to hit 53 home runs the following year. Jake Arrieta was borderline replacement level between 2010 and 2013 before dominating the National League last year with a 2.53 ERA and 4.0 WARP.

Development paths aren’t uniform. Some top prospects hit the ground running; some struggle for a couple hundred plate appearances before figuring it out; some need a few years to make the necessary adjustments to the majors; and some unceremoniously wash out. This isn’t to suggest Brandon Wood was always destined to struggle at the highest level; however, it did take several years to fully understand the projected success wasn’t going to come. After all, you have to let a player truly fall before you can determine whether he can get back up.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards for Brandon Wood. There were necessary adjustments he just couldn’t make, and he ended his professional baseball career with the ugly “bust” label that gets thrust upon players who are never able to reach the lofty expectations placed upon them.

*****

The Kansas City Royals drafted Mike Moustakas second overall in the 2007 draft. He soared through the Royals’ farm system and Baseball Prospectus ranked him the seventh-best prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2011 season. After hitting .287/.347/.498 with 10 home runs in just 55 Triple-A games that year, he made his major-league debut for the Royals.

Things haven’t particularly gone well for Moose. His combined slash line in his first-four seasons was just .236/.290/.379 with a measly 82 OPS+. He’s been labeled a “bust” by multiple online articles and many Twitter analysts. Of course, it’s impossible to argue that Moustakas hasn’t been bad at the plate. He has a career .244 TAv and .382 SLG. Only his glovework at third base has kept him above replacement level in recent years.

At just 26 years old, though, there’s still this feeling that Mike Moustakas may simply have a longer developmental curve than most young players. The Royals’ front office still believes Moustakas has talent at the plate that will eventually shine through. Just like Alex Gordon needed a handful of seasons to adjust to the majors, Dayton Moore and his staff still hope Moustakas can adjust to big-league pitching and begin to tap into the potential he displayed for years in the minors.

Perhaps Moore was right. Through 12 games (56 plate appearances) this season, Mike Moustakas is hitting .304/.407/.478 with two doubles, two home runs, and 10 runs scored. He performed exceedingly well in spring training—which is not anything new, to be fair—and that has carried over into the beginning of the regular season.

Fantasy owners have gravitated toward Moose. His ownership has increased by over 50 percent this past week to an overall 82.9 percent ownership rate. Thus, despite four years of tribulations and sadness, many owners are hoping this early-season success is a harbinger for a full-fledged breakout performance.

Some truly positive signs exist. Moustakas has never been one to swing-and-miss much; however, his 2015 swinging-strike rate is half his career mark. Furthermore, he has shown a penchant for chasing pitches outside the strike zone over the years, but that has also improved markedly.

Year

O-Swing%

SwStr%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

Career

35.4%

8.6%

73.2%

88.4%

2015

30.6%

4.4%

76.9%

95.7%

Moustakas is not only chasing bad pitches and whiffing less often, but his contact percentage on pitches in the strike zone is through the roof. It’s north of his career norms by over seven percent and is higher than his previous career-high by over four percent. His 95.7 percent is also well-above the league average of 87 percent.

In essence, his approach has seemingly improved through the first couple of weeks. This isn’t to suggest that Moustakas has fundamentally changed. After all, Eric Seidman has suggested that it takes 100 PA for contact rates to stabilize and become more predictive of future results. More generally, though, plate discipline statistics are less noisy than things like batting average or ISO. These are positive changes and encouraging trends to keep tabs on.

It should also be noted that Moustakas has only hit for power to his pull side throughout his career. Here is his home-run spray chart from last year:

Spray charts from previous seasons do not vary much, aside from the stray homer to center or right-center field. This month, though, Moustakas hit his first home run to what could be considered “left field” off Jeff Samardzija on April 6.

To put this in more context, Moustakas is a career .212 hitter to the opposite field with a .044 ISO. Those numbers have increased to a .467 batting average and .200 ISO through the first two weeks. Granted, those numbers aren’t exactly stable or predictive to this point, but they do suggest something different is happening. If Mike Moustakas is not only swinging at better pitches, but missing those better pitches less often than in previous seasons and he’s showing the ability to hit the baseball with power to the opposite field, those are positive omens for future success.

Before getting too excited, though, we must deal with his .343 BABIP. That may not be exceedingly high for average major-league players, it is 80 points higher than his career average of .262. The low BABIP has largely stemmed from weak contact and very high infield-fly rates. Unfortunately, his infield-fly rate is a massive 42.1 percent this year. He’s sporting a massive—for him—BABIP and doing so with nearly half of his flyballs being harmless infield flies.

Moustakas has the fifth-highest infield-fly percentage since the 2011 season. The only qualified players with higher infield-fly rates are Chris Heisey, Vernon Wells, Brendan Ryan, and Clint Barmes—all of whom were truly bad offense players in that time frame. Thus, despite the positive trends noted before, the 26-year-old still has an extreme tendency to pop out, which will significantly hurt his batting average. And if his increased contact rate is merely an increased infield-fly rate, that’s not actually positive news.

Contextually, there are some things that make him more attractive to fantasy owners. Ned Yost has committed to Moose in the two-spot, which should present more opportunities for counting stats in a surprisingly potent Royals’ batting order. Even if they don’t continue to tear the cover off the baseball—which they certainly won’t to the same extent—batting higher in the order is almost always a good thing for fantasy baseball.

In the end, the underlying numbers and trends suggest Mike Moustakas has simultaneously improved and stagnated. His increased selectivity, increased power, and willingness to purposely utilize left field all suggest Moustakas’s early-season success could bloom into something longer-term and sustainable. However, his batted-ball tendencies illustrate that he seemingly hasn’t changed that much. His batting average should still crumble if he can’t cut down the harmless pop-ups. His power should decline, as well. In many ways, it appears to be a glass half-full or glass half-empty situation. Do you prefer to focus on the positive changes or the negative stagnations?

BUYER’S ADVICE: HOLD

There are too many unknowns here for me to advocate one way or the other. I want to believe in his overall improvement; however, it’s impossible for me to ignore the elephant in the room. His biggest issue has always been weak contact, rather than no contact. His unbelievable 42.1 percent infield-fly rate suggests that flaw has not disappeared. Throw in the fact that he has an 18.2 percent infield-hit rate despite having a career 4.1 percent mark, and the batting average seems destined to tumble in a significant way. Perhaps the improvements outlined above will allow him to keep the batting average around .240-.250 from here to the end of the season, but I cannot foresee him hitting anywhere near .300 as he is now. I could, however, see heightened power that combines with better run and RBI totals, which would make him much more valuable in fantasy leagues than he has been in previous seasons.

Thank you for reading

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jfranco77
4/20
Interesting stuff as always. Love the Brandon Wood throwback.

Attention Sam Miller> please recruit Brandon Wood for the Stompers.
rudyrosen
4/22
The high infield hit rate is a direct result of laying down bunts against the shift and slapping the ball the other way. It will come down if teams stop shifting as much, but that obviously will open up other opportunities for Moooooooose