SURPRISE, Ariz. — The question to Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas was pedestrian — a mumbled request for a retrospective view of last season — but the answer was absolutely illustrative.
By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star
“It was disappointing,” he said. “Anytime, you don’t make the playoffs, especially with what we have here, it’s a disappointing year. It’s why we play the game — to play those extra games at the end of the year.”
Moustakas rolled on, never seeming to consider it wasn’t a team question.
“Last year and the year before (as a rookie in 2011),” he added, “are my first times of not making the postseason since I’ve been playing baseball. I was just real disappointed in the way things ended up.”
There you have Moustakas; a throwback mix of intensity, pull power and high expectations. His own performance last season — and particularly over the last two months — was also a disappointment.
“His frustration level grew more in the second half with his at-bats,” manager Ned Yost said. “He got off to a good start, and you ride a good start. When you start to struggle, you start fighting it a little bit.
“I think he started fighting it in the second half.”
Moustakas now admits, albeit grudgingly, that a sprained right knee suffered July 28 in Seattle might have been a factor. He suffered the injury while making a diving stop in the first inning on a Casper Wells grounder.
“It’s whatever you guys want to make of it,” Moustakas said. “It definitely didn’t feel like it was 100 percent, but that didn’t affect me on the field. Any time I step on the field, my body is 100 percent.
“You’ve got to think that way. You have to go out there and play the game as hard as you can or you’re going to get hurt.”
OK, fine. Check the numbers:
Moustakas was batting .262 with 16 homers and 50 RBIs in 95 games before the injury. He missed one game, then batted .204 over his final 54 games with four homers and 23 RBIs.
“In this game,” he said, “no one is 100 percent all of the time. When something like that happens, you just have to play through it. The knee feels good now. Everything is good.”
While Moustakas’ run-production dipped notably over the closing months, his defense remained near flawless. He led all American League third basemen in assists, chances and zone rating and was a Gold Glove finalist.
“That’s what makes you a valuable player,” Yost said. “The whole goal of this game every day is to just do one thing to help your team win. It doesn’t have to be offense every day. Sometimes, it’s defense.
“He’s a superb fielder. He’s as good as there is in the American League. The bottom line is to do one thing every day to help your team win. If your team wins, it doesn’t matter what it is.”
Yost views last season as a learning experience for Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer, the club’s first-round draft picks in 2007 and 2008 who now represent the core of the Royals’ homegrown rebuilding project.
“Last year was such a great development year for them,” Yost said. “Not in terms of swinging the bat or catching ground balls, but in terms of their mental makeup.
“They struggled mightily. They got frustrated. Both kids have experienced that now. Both kids will now take a couple of pretty good steps forward by knowing how to handle that; knowing what it feels like to go through it.”
Hosmer studied reams of tape in the off-season in an attempt to determine what went so wrong. Not Moustakas.
“Actually, I didn’t look at any film this off-season,” he said. “That’s not the way I work. I work better with feel, going out and actually hitting. I start to overanalyze when I start looking at film.
“For me, I just go out there and hit. Feel what’s comfortable. I just needed to get back to how I used to hit. At the big-league level, there’s a lot of information that you can get.
“For some people, that can be helpful. For some people, it can be harmful. For me, the less I know, the better off I am. I’ve been doing it by feel this off-season, and doing that this spring, and it feels good as of right now.”
The general view among the Royals is the off-season improvements to their rotation won’t matter much if the attack doesn’t significantly improve after finishing 12th last season among American League teams in runs.
“We’ve got to get production out of our corners — first, third, left and right,” Yost said. “We got it out of left last year. We’re going to have to have consistent production out of the corners in order for us to be successful.”
That puts the focus on Hosmer, Moustakas and Jeff Francoeur — assuming Alex Gordon puts up a third straight All-Star-caliber year. That’s as it should be, Moustakas contends.
“Those corner positions have to supply the big power numbers and big RBI numbers,” he said. “That’s where it has to come from — me, Hos, Gordo and Frenchy.
“We’ve also got Salvy (Perez) in the lineup for the whole year, which is going to be awesome. We’re expecting Gordo to keep having the years he’s been having.
“Billy (Butler), we know he’s going to put up the numbers he always puts up. He and Gordo are just so consistent. It’s up to me and Hos and Frenchy to get up their level, just play to the level that we know how to play.”
Note that, each time, Moustakas listed him first as people who need to produce. That “me” is pointed emphasis, not poor grammar.
“I expect a lot from myself, man,” he said. “I always expect a lot. Maybe a little too much, but that’s just kind of how I am. I always expect the best and to perform the best.
“That’s how everybody in the clubhouse is. That’s how everybody in baseball should be. You should expect to be the best. I expect to go out and get four hits every day. That’s just how it is.
“I expect to go out and make every play. It’s not being cocky. That’s just how I expect to play the game. I want to be as perfect as I can.”
Most of all, he expects to win.
“That’s why we play this great game,” he said. “That’s why we put on the uniform. Nothing else matters.”