On the night of Aug. 2, in the final moments of a baseball game in Baltimore, something strange happened. Orioles reliever Darren O’Day unleashed a 79 mph slider that broke low and outside. Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas cradled his bat near his shoulder and remained in the cocked position. And home-plate umpire John Tumpane pumped his first for strike three.
You might remember this at-bat because an incensed Moustakas turned and screamed back at Tumpane, earning an ejection in the ninth inning of a 6-0 loss. But this was not what was strange about this moment. The story goes deeper than that.
For 96 games and 379 at-bats, Moustakas had stepped to the plate and hit 30 homers, roped 16 doubles, walked 19 times and struck out another 66 times. But he had not struck out looking, not once, until Tumpane rang him up on a borderline pitch. So in some ways, the moment stunned him.
“I swing at everything with two strikes,” he says.
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By now, of course, you have heard of “frenzy hitting” and “keep the line moving” and all manner of ways to describe what it is the Royals do once inside the batter’s box. But here in the early weeks of August, as a club find itself in another postseason chase, is another phrase to add to the list.
Moustakas calls it “Battle Mode,” and it offers a fine summation for what happens when he finds himself with two strikes. The definition crystallized during a recent conversation with teammate Eric Hosmer.
“Hos said it best,” Moustakas says. “It becomes a ping-pong match with two strikes.”
The pitcher throws, and Moustakas swings, and the image offers insight into an All-Star slugger and the team for which he plays. In the finest year of his career — a season that could end with more than 40 homers and the single-season franchise record in his possession — Moustakas has thrived on an altered game plan, one predicated on aggression. In his seventh season in Kansas City, he is swinging at more pitches than ever before.
“If I think I can hit it,” he says, “I’m gonna take a swing.”
The plan veers toward the extreme with two strikes. It begins when he steps into the box. Moustakas is swinging at 56.9 percent of pitches in 2017, which ranks sixth in baseball and will smash his previous career high (49.1 percent in 2012). Yet inside his own clubhouse, he is not a mere statistical outlier. He is the exemplar of a Royals hitter.
In 2017, Kansas City’s batters lead baseball by swinging at 50.9 percent of all pitches. If they maintain the pace for the rest of the season, they will become baseball’s most swing-happy team since Baseball Info Solutions began keeping statistics on plate discipline in 2002.
The approach, of course, is not novel. It is the same one, in big-picture terms, that existed across two straight World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015. Yet 14 seasons after “Moneyball” examined the under-valued asset of patience and on-base percentage, the Royals are hacking at historic levels. Patience is no virtue. They prefer to swing.
“That’s their style,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.
In the last 15 years, no team has swung at more than 50 percent of pitches, and only the 2017 Braves (50.3 percent) have come close to equaling the Royals’ mark. The trends are not dependent on pitch location. Entering Friday, Kansas City’s hitters were offering at 71.5 percent of pitches in the zone (first in baseball) and 34.2 percent of pitch out of it (tied for first with the Braves). And the approach remains mostly consistent up and down the lineup.
On Friday, the Royals entered the day with six of their regulars ranking in the top 25 in the American League in swing percentage — the total number of pitches offered at — and three hitters in the top 10. The king of swing, perhaps unsurprisingly, is catcher Salvador Perez, who ranks fourth in baseball while swinging at 58.5 percent of pitches. Shortstop Alcides Escobar was 10th at 52.6 percent.
“We’re an aggressive team, we go up swinging,” Yost says. “And when it’s working, everybody loves it. And when it’s not, everybody’s like: ‘Why don’t you be more disciplined?’”
Yost has been answering these questions for years now, the ones about his offense and how it could be more effective. The Royals entered Friday ranked 12th in the American League in runs scored, last in walks and on-base percentage and ninth in slugging. Their record has fallen to .500 as their pitching struggled during a 2-8 start in August. The club’s hot-and-cold nature over the last two seasons has often been defined by an offense that often finds itself in ruts. Yet in meetings and informal conversations among the coaching staff, the patience and selectivity of a group of hitters is a frequent topic.
“You don’t think we address that all the time?” Yost asked. “Of course, we do. We talk about being more selective and getting better pitches. But again, these guys are who they are.”
Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum says there cannot be one approach to which hitters must conform. Players are individuals. Sveum believes that Moustakas could win a batting title if he was more selective. But he has clubbed 32 homers while driving in 73 runs. Second baseman Whit Merrifield is batting .300 with 13 homers and 24 doubles in 96 games. Yet other than Perez, Escobar and Moustakas, he is among the club’s more aggressive hitters.
“You can’t take away from who they are,” Yost says.
Escobar says he would like to be more selective at the plate. So does Moustakas. Perez, for the moment, appears to be comfortable with his style.
“If I see it close, I’m swinging,” Perez says. “You guys know me: I like to swing.”
In quiet moments, Yost will envision what Perez could be if he was “just a little more selective.” But what would he be if you robbed him of his aggressiveness?
A few months ago, Yost pondered the question in his office at Kauffman Stadium. He pointed at two reporters and proceeded to offer an example.
“It’s almost like you being a horse and him being a cow,” Yost said, looking at his audience. “I’m going to tell you, ‘I want you to to be a cow. Why can’t you be a cow?’ Why don’t you be a horse? You can’t run for (expletive). He can run a little bit, because he’s a horse, why don’t you be a horse?”
Perhaps that story was slightly confusing. But Yost sought to offer a simple message.
“Players are players,” he says. “You can talk about it. It’s easy to say: ‘OK, you need to be more selective.’ The hard part is being more selective.”
In the finest season of his life, Moustakas has learned the same. In afternoon hitting sessions with Sveum, player and coach talk about being more selective. Moustakas would like to be, too. He would like to take more pitches. He would like to eschew battle mode for a keener eye. But right now, this is working, he says. This is who he is.
“I don’t know if it’s something exactly I want to do,” he says. “I just feel like there’s a lot of pitches I’ve been getting that have been good pitches to hit, and I’m just in attack mode pretty much as soon as I get in the box.”