March 30, 2014

Mike Moustakas’ journey of rediscovery

Mike Moustakas traveled to Venezuela in an attempt to uncover what was missing from a swing that once made him a star in waiting.

Mike Moustakas walked into the bakery most mornings by 10 a.m.

His quest to resuscitate his career involves technical alterations, a philosophical shift and emotional maturation But for three weeks last winter, he required daily trips to a breakfast spot outside his hotel in the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto.

A foursome broke bread together: Moustakas, his childhood friend Andrew Lambo, Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol and former Royals hitting coordinator Jose Castro. By 11:30 a.m., they were on the road to Estadio Antonio Herrera Gutierrez, the home of Grifol’s Cardenales de Lara, and the venue for Moustakas’ attempt at resurrection.

Once there, Grifol and Moustakas huddled for hours, tinkering with solutions for the problems Moustakas could not solve during parts of three big-league seasons. The games were raucous, high-tension affairs that could last five hours. Each night they conducted a postmortem inside Grifol’s office. Then they drove back to the hotel.

They call Barquisimeto the Dusk City, but Moustakas eschewed exploration.

“I didn’t ever venture out of there,” Moustakas said one day earlier this month in Arizona. “I never had the need to. The reason I was there was to play baseball. And to work.”

He had just finished an atypical outing in his otherwise torrid spring. Rare was the day he did not punish a baseball. For the second year in a row, Moustakas torched the Cactus League. Royals officials raved about his pregame dedication and in-game composure. This year, they insisted, will be different.

“Same talent, same passion, same ability,” manager Ned Yost said. “Just more experienced.”

That is the hope, and the stakes are high. Moustakas was the first draft pick of general manager Dayton Moore’s regime. In 2007, the Royals selected Moustakas second overall, ahead of All-Stars Jason Heyward, Matt Wieters, Madison Bumgarner, Giancarlo Stanton and Jordan Zimmermann. As the Royals open their most anticipated season in two decades, they need Moustakas to approach this level.

The Royals opted for Moustakas based on a skills package that still causes rival evaluators to salivate. His arm is “a cannon,” one said. Another commended Moustakas for his commitment to improving his aptitude at third base. A third gushed about the savage potential of his bat.

“His power,” said the executive, who scouted Moustakas as an amateur. “My God.”

Yet the evidence against Moustakas is just as damning. He is 25 now, no longer the wunderkind touted by publications such as Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Last season was the worst of his career, and Baseball Reference valued him at below replacement level — worse than Class AAA fodder.

Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, Moustakas’ close friend and a fellow former top prospect, appeared to turn a corner in 2013. Moustakas edged toward a cliff. Amid the tumult, team officials fretted about Moustakas’ psyche. He agonized over his struggles. He blamed himself for 10-game losing streaks. When a player of his ability fails, he felt, the calamity shakes the faith of the men around him.

“When I was struggling, I felt like I wasn’t just letting myself down,” Moustakas said. “I was letting 24 other guys down, and the whole coaching staff. That’s what hurt the most.”

The challenge now, as he embarks on 2014, is to ignore the impulse that drove him for so long.

“I always tried to be perfect,” he said. “And this is a hard game to be perfect at.”

In a Disneyland parking lot in the summer of 2007, Danny Duffy clambered onto a bus full of strangers. He was looking for a legend.

“Is Moose here?” Duffy asked the students of Chatsworth High from outside Los Angeles. “Is Moustakas here? We’re going to be teammates!”

Duffy had traveled to the Magic Kingdom for a graduation ceremony for high schoolers in Southern California. The exploits of Moustakas had traveled about two hours northwest to Cabrillo High in Lompoc, where Duffy earned a third-round selection. As a senior, Moustakas set state records for homers in a season (24) and career (52). Baseball America deemed him the best high school player in America. “He was a monster,” Duffy said.

“I’m telling you,” said his agent, Scott Boras, “Moose is one of the greatest high school hitters I’ve ever seen.”

You do not view Mike Moustakas the way the Royals view Mike Moustakas. You see the .681 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 1,493 plate appearances. You hear the calls for his demotion last summer. You wonder how much longer the leash lasts.

And, yes, the Royals must ponder these same issues. In December, they acquired a competent backup in Danny Valencia. Moore insists Valencia is not competition, even if he appears an ideal right-handed platoon complement for the left-handed-hitting Moustakas.

But the organization often appears protective of Moustakas, defensive of his flaws and insistent on his incoming success. Yost recounted tales from his first spring here, as a special assistant to Moore in 2010. As Yost roamed the back fields, three minor-leaguers stood out: Salvador Perez, Hosmer and Moustakas. “Love at first sight,” he called it.

“When I see a player that I believe in,” Yost said, “I’m very seldom wrong.”

The in-house appreciation stretches back farther than that, well past the team’s scouting of Moustakas in high school. More than a decade ago, James Shields spent a winter volunteering as a coach on a travel team called the Southern California Heat. Their shortstop was a monster named Moustakas.

He flashed outlandish power. On the mound, his fastball clocked in the 90s. “It seemed like he was the same size that he is now,” Shields said.

Shields was joking. But he hinted at one source of Moustakas’ trouble, a flaw that did not become exposed until recently. Moustakas stands 6 feet, and rival talent evaluators pointed to a concerning hole on the inner half of the plate.

“To get to his power, he’s got to get his arms extended,” one executive said. “And if you bust him inside, his natural swing is to get his arms extended. So if you bust him inside, everything is in on his hands, because he’s pushing his hands out to extend.”

The executive added, “He just cannot do anything with a fastball on the inner half. And it seems like he can’t really at times pull the trigger when he needs to.”

In the minors, where advanced scouting reports are rare and consistent talent is scarce, pitchers could not attack this weakness. In the majors, pitchers can hit the spots that torment him.

Plus, Moustakas operates with aggression. His patience can be lacking.

“He never had a great approach,” one executive said. “He never was a walk guy. So you combine a big hole with bad counts. That’s a bad combination.”

Another scout cited an inability to recognize pitches from left-handers as a critical flaw. The data backs that up. Moustakas has a .707 career OPS against righties, and a .606 OPS against lefties.

A third mentioned an issue Royals officials have raised, too: “He’s a kid that to me really puts a lot of pressure on himself to run up some big numbers,” the executive said.

That impulse was hardwired into his DNA. As a freshman at Chatsworth, Moustakas starred on a team that went undefeated. Every year after, he shouldered the blame for losses, recalled Tom Meusborn, then the Chancellors’ coach.

“He was never satisfied,” he said.

Moustakas exuded intensity. He embraced the pressure of the environment. Each day, Meusborn said, represented an opportunity for improvement.

“He tries to master his craft, and master everything he approached,” Meusborn said.

Moustakas is unsure when this approach began to feel futile. He experienced a minor-league blip in 2009, but rebounded with a hellacious 2010 season: 36 homers, 41 doubles and a .999 OPS between Class AA and Class AAA. When he arrived in the majors the next summer, he still believed the only way out was through.

“I didn’t ever fail in the minor leagues,” he said. “Most of my entire life, I never really did.”

One night at Surprise Stadium, facing Reds starter Alfredo Simon, Moustakas took a 94 mph fastball on the hands for a strike.

He watched a pair of splitters dart out of the strike zone. Then he pounced on another fastball, this one out off the plate, ripping yet another extra-base hit. Inside the dugout, Hosmer turned to Grifol and shook his head.

“Honestly,” Hosmer said the next morning, “I don’t think he’s missed a barrel all spring.”

Moustakas feels a comfort this spring that had deserted him in recent years. He approaches each bat with a plan, an installation that he credits to Grifol.

To Moustakas, the success stems from his 17 games in Venezuela. He adores Grifol. He convinced Lambo, a Pirates farmhand, to come to Venezuela to study with Grifol.

Moustakas appreciated the intellect of former Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. But they lacked a connection.

“It’s nothing against what he does or he did, but the stuff he said really didn’t click,” Moustakas said. A similar divide arose with the tandem of Jack Maloof and Andre David, who replaced Seitzer at the outset of last season.

As the season collapsed last May, the Royals reassigned Maloof and David. In came the duo of Grifol and George Brett. The latter infused him with confidence. The former designed an individualized program that connected with Moustakas.

And Moustakas experienced a discernible uptick in production: His first-half OPS was .598; his second-half OPS was .725.

The experimentation continued in the winter. The alterations began with opening up the field. Grifol wanted Moustakas to feel comfortable hitting the ball the other way. They opened his stance to help with recognition of pitches. His hands shifted upward.

Grifol described these and other changes as “very, very minimal,” and pointed to his head.

“It’s all right up here,” he said. “He’s in a good frame of mind. He feels good physically because he’s working his (tail) off in the weight room. He feels good mentally because he played winter ball and he had success.”

Moustakas got married this winter. Soon after, he flew to Venezuela. Even inside his baseball bubble, the nearby sights changed him. He gained perspective on the trappings of major-league life.

“It’s a blessing to be able to have a hot shower,” he said. “It really opens the eyes to when you see the poverty on the streets. It humbles you really quickly.”

Can one winter cure all? There is no way to know. Moustakas floundered as a man-child. He wants to succeed as a man.

The signs of a potential breakout are so apparent, but the season is long and painful. The pressure is immense. His impulses remain within him, even as he tries to temper them. He still must conquer left-handers. He still must combat inside pitching.

And he must handle failure.

“That’s something that I’ve gone through now, and I learned how to deal with it,” Moustakas said. “At some times, at some points, it wasn’t very good when I was dealing with it. Now I understand that it’s not live or die on every pitch. And I’m able to separate things a lot better.”

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