All indications out of Royals camp during the spring were that Mike Moustakas was a man on a mission to combat the defensive shift that had hampered him in 2014. Prior to last season, Moustakas was rarely shifted against but the book finally got out on his dead pull tendencies as Kansas City’s storybook season unfolded. He was the 10th most shifted batter in baseball in 2014, per the Bill James Handbook, and saw the right side of the infield loaded up with three infielders in approximately 70 percent of his trips to the plate. Moustakas’ BABIP when he pulled the ball in 2014 dropped to .211, which was over 100 points lower than his career mark.
Just days before the start of the season, he told Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star about his determination to beat the shift.
“I’ve got to find a way to beat it. I’ve been a pull hitter most of my life. It’s smart for teams to shift me. It’s on me to figure out a way to beat it, maybe lay down a couple of bunts, go the other way a little more. These are the things I need to work on.”
As a result, Moustakas used spring training as an opportunity to practice beating the shift. Jeff Sullivan pointed out that Moustakas’ spray chart this past spring was drastically different than in previous years, with over half of his balls in play going to the left side of second base, according to Baseball Savant. Moustakas also attempted bunts in a few games and laid one down for a base hit in a game toward the end of March against the Diamondbacks. As you might recall, Moustakas picked up a bunt single last October during Game Two of the ALDS against the Angels.
So how is Moustakas’ plan working out about a month into the season? If you’ve tuned into a Royals game anytime during the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard the Royals commentary team rave about Moustakas’ transformation as a hitter or seen a chart similar to the following one from this past Saturday’s game.
Clearly this doesn’t tell the entire story, but there is something going on here. According to Baseball Savant, of the 90 balls that Moustakas has put into play this season, 43 of them have been to the left of second base (48 percent). Between 2013-2014, his rate was at just 34 percent, with 266 of his 776 balls in play going to the left of second base.
But of course, when considering whether or not to shift a player, we’re taking into account a subset of balls in play: specifically groundballs. If it’s true that Moustakas has become a master of beating the shift, then he should be hitting more grounders between second and third base, right?
Wrong. In fact, the reverse is happening. Moustakas’ ground ball rate on balls hit the opposite way have actually gone down this season, according to FanGraphs, with his groundball rate on balls hit up the middle basically hovering around his career norm. The number that probably caught your eye is that 39.4 percent line-drive rate to the opposite field this season—the prevailing driver behind Moustakas hitting to all fields. He isn’t directing a bunch of groundballs past the lone man often left to guard the left side; rather, he has been flipping the ball over the infield for singles the other way. As you can see below, he’s still hitting the majority of his grounders into the teeth of the shift.
Perhaps most impressive about Moustakas’ propensity to make loud contact the other way in the early going is that he’s doing it despite pitchers challenging him with more fastballs on the inner half of the plate. The rate of hard stuff he’s seen this season has increased by about five percentage points from last season, and his heat maps indicate that pitchers have attacked him on the hands more frequently than in previous seasons.
Yet when Moustakas has gotten pitches over the outer third, he’s taken what’s been given to him and gone with the pitch the other way.
Obviously we’re dealing with small samples and until we get all the batted ball data Statcast has to offer we still have to deal with batted ball classifications. But while what Moustakas has done to this point is impressive, it hasn’t done much to suggest that teams should stop shifting against him.
If we’re speaking strictly about what Moustakas has done to beat the shift, arguably the more important addition to his arsenal has been his willingness to bunt to beat the shift this season. In addition to a pair of sacrifice bunts, he’s already successfully bunted to beat the shift twice this season, according to Inside Edge. Those two bunts prompted changes made to the defensive positioning by the opposing teams, which are adjustments worth examining further. Let’s observe what transpired during those series plus take another look at one team that ditched the full shift against Moustakas for a different reason.
Twins (April 13-16, April 20-22)
We start things off in the middle match of Kansas City’s first series against Minnesota, with Alcides Escobar on first base and no outs in the first inning. After Moustakas took the second pitch for a ball Royals play-by-play man Ryan Lefebvre said, “Well he’s at least making defenses think more compared to last year,” to which his broadcast partner Rex Hudler noted that Trevor Plouffe, who was the lone man on the left side of the infield, “was moving over towards third. Now he’s backing up, he’s running towards shortstop.”
More importantly, Moustakas had also noticed that Plouffe backed up, and the Moose squared around to bunt Kyle Gibson’s offering just as Hudler was finishing his sentence.
It wasn’t the best bunt in the world and went for a hit almost entirely because Gibson finished his delivery in poor fielding position. But the benefit of Moustakas’ bunt spilled over into his next at bat. With the threat of a bunt fresh in the minds of the Twins, Plouffe was positioned in on the grass, just to the right of the cutout, leaving plenty of real estate open between him and second base. Even with a full shift on against a left-handed batter, you still have one fielder to deploy on the left side of the infield. Normally, that infielder would have been right where the soft line drive that Moustakas hit landed, but because Plouffe needed to account for the threat of a bunt, the ball dropped in for a leadoff single.
With specific batter-pitcher matchups, handedness, counts and base situations all playing a role in fielder positioning, it can be difficult to tell whether a team has actually made an adjustment against a hitter or whether it is simply the product of a different matchup. For example, the Twins abandoned the full shift and elected to heavily shade their infield against Moustakas the next day. But with left-hander Tommy Milone on the mound, it isn’t clear whether this was because of the specific matchup or whether they indeed were reacting to Moustakas beating the shift the previous day. (He also singled on a groundball through the left side in his first at bat of the series finale.). However, the very next week, the Royals and Twins faced off again and we got another matchup between Moustakas and Gibson.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that the Twins decided to adjust their infield alignment because of what Moustakas had done against them during their previous series. It wasn’t until the Twins got two strikes on Moustakas that they chose to apply the full shift against him.
Indians (April 27-29)
Perhaps the most impressive night at the dish this season by Moustakas was last Monday against the Indians, as he collected three hits against Corey Kluber on his way to a 4-for-5 night, with all five balls in play either hit up the middle or to the opposite field. In the first inning, he took a two-seamer that Kluber left up and drilled it the other way for a single.
Next time up, he roped a double into the left-center field gap.
After flying out to center in his third at bat, he took a fastball off the plate from Kluber the other way for an RBI single.
In his final at bat, he collected his fourth hit of the night on a single to center off southpaw Marc Rzepczynski. Take note that the Indians had a full shift on Moustakas during the first two hits above.
The whole idea behind defensive shifting is playing the percentages and positioning defenders where the ball is hit the majority of the time. There is bound to be the occasional weak grounder that sneaks through the infield that might not have otherwise gotten through if there wasn’t a shift in place, but generally, teams don’t completely alter their alignment against a hitter just because he goes the opposite way once or twice in a game.
However, this turned out to be what followed in Cleveland. Even though Moustakas didn’t “beat the shift” per se in any of his at bats in the series opener—all of the balls were hit over the infield—he did demonstrate the ability to go the opposite way with authority. Cleveland didn’t deploy a full shift against Moustakas again during the series.
FOX Sports Ohio did a pretty good job illustrating the stark differences between Cleveland’s infield alignments against Moustakas during the first two games.
The same caveat that applied with specific matchups is in play again here. However, I think we can feel pretty comfortable saying that abandoning the shift against Moustakas wasn’t some coincidence that had to do with specific batter-pitcher matchups. Cleveland didn’t shift Moustakas with Trevor Bauer on the mound in the second game of the series but they did deploy a shift against Moustakas last year with Bauer pitching. The same also held true last year for the Indians behind Danny Salazar, who pitched in the series finale. There was a precedent for shifting Moustakas with Bauer and Salazar on the hill but the Indians chose not to employ the shift after the third baseman’s performance in the series opener. It’s hard to believe that was an accident.
Tigers (April 30-May 3)
Unlike the Indians, the Tigers stuck to their guns against Moustakas this past weekend. Brad Ausmus’ club kept three fielders on the right side of the infield against Moustakas throughout the four-game set despite a bunt to beat the shift in Moose’s first at bat of the series and an infield hit on Saturday on a soft chopper down the third base line.
However, there was one adjustment that Detroit against Moustakas over the weekend and it can be partially attributed to his teammate, Eric Hosmer. Notice above that Moustakas’ bunt on Thursday came in a 0-1 count and that Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias was charging in from a traditional shortstop position. Just one pitch earlier, Iglesias had been here.
Moustakas’ bunt was basically perfect and he probably would have been safe regardless, but I doubt he would have given it a try with the slick-fielding Iglesias playing so far in. The next day, Hosmer joined the party and laid down his first bunt to beat the shift of the season.
But similar to Moustakas, Hosmer waited until a 1-1 count until squaring around. After getting burned for the second time in as many nights, the Tigers responded immediately. After the game, Ausmus told reporters, including MLB.com’s Jason Beck, that the next time through the order, he made sure to keep Iglesias on the dirt until there were two strikes against either Moustakas or Hosmer.
Interestingly enough, on rate basis, the Tigers were the most effective shifting team last season, according to Baseball Info Solution data that Mark Simon of ESPN Stats and Information tweeted out last October. The adjustment Detroit made against the Royals wasn’t as radical as the one Cleveland seemed to make against Moustakas earlier in the week but it’s a good example of how small tweaks are probably more appropriate when weighing a game or two against a hitter’s track record. Tigers defensive coordinator Matt Martin told Beck as much after Saturday’s game.
We'll adjust things. People tend to overreact on certain deals. We don't do a 180, but we'll make adjustments. You shouldn't abandon your plan, but make adjustments. Last year, we made adjustments that were subtle, and we'll continue to make adjustments.
So what does this all mean for Moustakas and how teams defend him going forward?
The verdict is still out on how much of the gains Moustakas has made at the plate he will sustain. He might not maintain a .306 True Average the rest of the season, but he’s clearly shown a concerted effort to use all fields when he’s hitting. At the very least it has added another dimension to his game. Royals manager Ned Yost was impressed early on with Moustakas’ adjustments, telling MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan that becoming a more complete hitter “will make him a better hitter in this league.” Moustakas agreed and noted that upon his arrival to the majors he felt the need to pull everything, “but now I feel like I'm going back to the hitter I used to be, someone who can drive the ball the other way. The shift has definitely made me more of a complete hitter.”
But becoming a more complete hitter and being a shift candidate for opposing defenses don’t have to be mutually exclusive traits. We know how difficult situational hitting is and despite making more hard contact the other way, Moustakas hasn’t shown that he’s actually discovered a knack for hitting grounders through the left side of the infield. Going forward, even if Moustakas continues to spray line drives and fly balls the opposite way, I would think that more teams would be inclined to respond the way Martin did with his infield alignment rather than how Cleveland was ready to bail on their plan after one night.
The way that Moustakas is going to ultimately be able to force opposing teams to consider abandoning the full shift against him is to continue his crusade of attempting bunts when the opportunity presents itself. In addition to the successful bunts he has dropped down, Moustakas has squared around on a handful of occasions this season. If he keeps it up, it should eventually force opposing teams to permanently station a fielder near the third base line until a two-strike count. Whether or not more teams choose to leave a gaping hole between that fielder and a standard second base position like Detroit did or stagger the infield more evenly like Minnesota did should be the most intriguing development in team’s response to Moustakas going forward.
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