He is struggling. Brandon Moss will be the first one to say this. He entered Monday hitting .153 with a .244 on-base percentage in his first 22 games. He’s clubbed just four homers while striking out 34 percent of the time. In his first season as the Royals’ primary designated hitter, he is pacing toward the worst offensive season of his career.
“The team is struggling, and I am the epitome of those struggles,” Moss said on Sunday, in the moments after a 1-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium. “I’m struggling the worst out of anybody.”
Moss is not the only guilty party, of course. Alex Gordon was batting .171 with zero homers and a .488 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) as the club arrived in Florida for a four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Alcides Escobar has been an offensive hole at shortstop. Salvador Perez has cranked six homers, yet has a .268 on-base percentage. There has been little production from a cast of role players, including Cheslor Cuthbert (.143), Whit Merrifield (.193) and Paulo Orlando (.149), since demoted to Class AAA Omaha.
As a result, the Royals have scored just 82 runs in 30 games, averaging a major-league worst 2.73 runs per contest and matching the worst 30-game stretch in club history. Yet outside of Gordon, who is signed to a long-term contract through 2019, the struggles of Moss raise the most difficult questions for the Royals’ front office and the future. In the offseason, the Royals signed the veteran slugger to a two-year, $12 million contract. The bulk of that deal, including $7.75 million in 2018 and a $1 million buyout, remains on the books.
On Sunday, Moss sat against Cleveland right-hander Mike Clevinger while rookie Jorge Bonifacio, a right-handed hitter, filled in at DH, the first sign that patience may be thinning. Yet Royals manager Ned Yost remains hopeful that Moss will emerge from his slump.
“Sometimes you can’t do anything, just for the life of you,” Moss said. “I think he knows the same thing. Players with track records will get to or close to what they’ve always done. And sometimes some slumps and some losing streaks are just more pronounced than others.”
If you are searching for hope, you can find it in Moss’s track record. In 2016, he clubbed 28 homers in 128 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, offering solid production for the first half of the season before his year was derailed by an ankle injury and a brutal September slump. The late slump offered warning signs. It also positioned Moss as a value signing on the open market. Since 2012, he had posted an adjusted OPS-plus below league average just once. The Royals sought to fill a void at DH by signing a cheaper alternative to Kendrys Morales, who landed a three-year, $33 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays. Yet they also targeted a player who had posted similar production at times, including the 2016 season.
Speaking of hope, the Royals can also find some in the 2016 season of Morales, who suffered through an eerily similar start in 2016.
On May 8, 2016, Morales was batting .213 with a .256 on-base percentage, three homers and a .578 OPS, just 15 points higher than Moss’ .563. Morales would finish the season with 30 homers and a .795 OPS.
For Moss, however, the struggles of 2017 come just months after a frustrating finish in 2016. Moss finished last season 9 for 91 in September and October. Starting last September, Moss is hitting .123 (20 for 163) with seven homers, one double, 61 strikeouts and 18 walks.
For now, the Royals see value in patience. But Moss will be the first to say this, too. He has to start producing more.
On an afternoon in late April, Moss discussed the feelings of being mired in a slump. On the previous day, the wind was howling to left field at Kauffman Stadium. Moss hit a ball to right that got knocked down in the cross-wind and died at the warning track. The conversation began with a question about checking the flags and adjusting your swing to the wind patterns. The interview has been slightly condensed for clarity.
Q: So when it’s a windy day like yesterday, you’ll check the flags before you walk up to the plate?
Moss: “Sometimes. If it’s howling out, and you can get something cheap, yeah. Why not? I feel like it’s the same as some guys that have the ability to hit ground balls and line drives into holes. I don’t have that ability. When I try to hit the ball on the ground, bad things happen. I should not ever do it. It’s the same. It’s just the direction of your swing. ‘OK, instead of getting over here (points to right), get it over here (to left) and drive it.’ ”
Q: So it’s where you’re making contact? You’re letting it travel deeper?
Moss: “It’s when you’re releasing your top hand. If you’re going to try to pull the ball, you’re going to have to release your top hand and pull it. But if you’re going to try to go the other way, you’re going to block your top hand and push that way.
“I make it look harder than it is. But it’s easier for me to direct my fly balls than it is my ground balls. Whenever I try to get above the ball or hit the ball down, I roll over. It’s easier for me to just get this top hand and drive up. It’s a weird swing.”
Q: So how do you explain your way of elevating the ball?
Moss: “If you’re going to pull it, you’re going to want to back-spin it. But I don’t hit a lot of back-spin balls. Most of my balls have the side spin. It’s hard to explain. I take my normal swing to elevate a ball. My natural swing elevates balls. It’s when I’m not taking my natural swing that the ball doesn’t get elevated. But my natural swing elevates it. It’s just a matter of using the top hand to direct the direction of it.
“Or not swinging at the change-up in the dirt. If you can not swing at the change-up in the dirt, you’ll have a lot more success in this game.”
Q: But I assume the change-up in the dirt doesn’t look like a change-up in the dirt?
Moss: “It looks like a fastball right there (belt high), which is the perfect pitch to drive. It’s just one of those things; it’s what I’ve been trying to work on better. And I’ve gotten a lot better this year at not chasing down so much. I’m still doing it every now and then. But I’m getting better with it.
“What it is is just allowing yourself that extra little second to read the ball. Instead of anticipating that it’s your pitch every single time, it’s realizing it’s probably not going to be your pitch. A change-up is different. It’s meant to look like a fastball. It’s meant to get you to chase and look like a fastball, and if you really want a fastball every single time, like I really want a fastball every single time, then it’s a really effective pitch.”
Q: So for you, it’s a lot easier to lay off of a breaking ball?
Moss: “You can see the spin, but it’s like … taking somebody hunting for the first time. As soon as they see antlers, they want to shoot the animal, because they know they’re after a buck. A buck is a buck is a buck. That’s how it becomes when you have two strikes. You’re not just looking for a trophy animal. You’re looking for a buck. I’m not just looking just for the perfect breaking ball to hit. I’m expecting a breaking ball, and I’m going to swing when I see a breaking ball. There’s the breaking ball, and it broke at your back foot. It was a great pitch.
“Early in the count, though, if you’re sitting breaking ball, you’re looking for the trophy buck. You’re looking for a hanging breaking ball that pops up out of the hand and it’s got loose spin and you can reverse the spin on it and hit it out. But the back-foot breaking ball, you pick it up, but it’s just so sharp, you can’t get to it. But you recognize the pitch that you’re looking for.”
Q: You’ve talked about this year how you want to be more selective in the zone. Have you?
Moss: “What I’ve said is I have to get better at taking strikes. I’m a guy that I want to hit every strike. You throw it in the strike zone, I want to swing. And I’ve got to get better at (saying), ‘OK, that’s just a good pitch. Why would would I want to swing at that 1-0?’ Maybe he’ll throw another one and hang it or maybe he’ll come with that change-up or maybe he’ll throw me a fastball.
“But it gets really hard to do when you aren’t getting a lot of hits, and it gets really hard to do when you want to hit. When you have that desire that you want to hit, you say: ‘I’m gonna get a hit right here. I’m going to drive it right here. It’s really want to drive it right here.’ ”