On opening day last year, something happened to Mike Moustakas that he could never remember seeing.
After reaching on an error in his first plate appearance at Detroit, Moustakas stepped up for the second time, in the fourth inning.
The Tigers realigned their defense. Not just a couple of steps; they put three defenders on the right side of the infield. That’s where a left-handed hitter like Moustakas is likely to pull the ball.
(Editor’s note: This story will appear in a special 26-page Royals preview section in the Sunday, April 5 print editions of The Kansas City Star)
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ I was really confused the first time I saw it,” Moustakas said. “They didn’t shift me in the spring.”
But the shift became a common tactic against the Royals third baseman throughout 2014, which started miserably for Moustakas and finished wonderfully with a power-filled postseason run.
The shifts continued into spring-training games this year and Moustakas continues to adjust to a defensive trend that has found a home in baseball.
The response from Moustakas and other Royals left-handed hitters who face a shift has been to accept the challenge and forge ahead.
“I’ve got to find a way to beat it,” Moustakas said. “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.”
Moustakas’ thoughts on the matter were expressed early in spring training, and his exhibition-game results were generally positive.
In a late-March game against the Diamondbacks, Moustakas came to the plate in the fourth inning with Eric Hosmer on first. The view from the batter’s box was familiar: three Arizona defenders stood between first and second base.
Moustakas laid down a perfect bunt to the left side for a single. Hosmer moved to second, and another single brought him home.
“The only way to stop the shift is to stop giving guys free base hits,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Small ball became part of Moustakas’ repertoire during last year’s postseason run by the Royals. In game two of their American League Division Series against the Angels, Moustakas laid down a leadoff bunt single. In the second ALCS game against the Orioles, he dropped a sacrifice bunt.
“I never really worked on bunting coming up,” Moustakas said. “I’d always been told, ‘Just swing the bat.’”
Moustakas isn’t going to become a bunt machine, but his desire to improve as an opposite-field hitter is a smart move.
Moustakas is a .374 career hitter on pitches he pulls, including 40 of his 52 regular-season home runs. The numbers drop to .255 and 12 home runs for balls hit up the middle and .185 and no home runs in 193 plate appearances on balls hit to left field.
He’s always been a pull hitter with power, setting the California high school record for career home runs, and there was no reason to master dropping base hits to left field.
“My mind-set had always been to drive the ball to the right-center-field gap,” Moustakas said. “I get in trouble when I try to pull everything.”
Things got so bad for Moustakas early last year that he was sent to Class AAA Omaha seven weeks into the season. At the time, he was hitting .152.
The Royals said they wanted Moustakas to “clear his head.” The shifts were taking their toll.
His average eventually improved to .212, but that still marked the lowest in Moustakas’ four major-league seasons. Not coincidentally, it was the first year he saw a shift for the majority of his plate appearances.
Moustakas was not alone.
According to John Dewan, who has written books about defensive analytics, 2014 saw 13,296 defensive shifts — defined as a ball hit into play while a shift is in effect — up from 8,280 in 2013 and 2,357 in 2011.
Dewan’s research, published in The Bill James Handbook, showed the shifts in 2014 saved a total of 195 runs, or an average of 6.5 runs per team over a season.
New Cubs manager Joe Maddon is credited with pioneering the modern — post-Ted Williams shift — version of radical defensive alignment. Maddon was with the Rays, who led the American League by a wide margin in shifts in 2011.
This spring, Maddon told the website Cubbies Crib that the tactic is about more than getting hitters out, it’s about getting them out of a comfort zone.
“You are trying to split someone’s desires, his concentrations, his thoughts,” Maddon said. “It’s a psychological ploy as well. They grew up looking out from the batter’s box and the infield had a certain look to it. Now when you look out there, people are in different places. How’s that going to affect your at-bat?”
Moustakas might have felt like the most shifted target in baseball, but he wasn’t, by a wide margin.
In his 500 plate appearances, Moustakas saw a shift 290 times. The total number of shifts ranked 10th in baseball.
Nobody saw more shifts than David Ortiz, a total of 505, or 94.9 percent of his plate appearances.
Rounding out the top 10: Ryan Howard, Chris Davis, Brandon Moss, Brian McCann, Adam Dunn, Lucas Duda, Mark Teixeira and Adam LaRoche.
Among Royals, Alex Gordon ranked in the top 30 players who faced a shift last year. Hosmer has also seen shifts.
Baseball experts agree that shifting has contributed to a reduction in offense. Teams scored an average of 4.07 runs per game last year, the lowest total since 1976.
Is the shift hurting baseball? During an interview with ESPN on his first full day as baseball’s new commissioner, Rob Manfred offered suggestions on how to inject more offense into the game.
“For example, things like eliminating the shifts, I would be open to those sorts of ideas,” Manfred said.
Baseball had changed rules to increase offense, from lowering the mound after 1968, when Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 batting average topped the American League, to introducing the designated hitter in 1973.
Other sports have rewritten rules to improve scoring. Shot clocks and the three-point arc came into college basketball. The NBA eliminated contact by a defender with his arms and forearms.
NFL defenders have been grousing for years about rules changes creating more advantages to offensive players.
But based on a swift negative reaction to his comments, Manfred clarified his position, saying he’s interested in the discussion and not implementing an illegal-defense penalty.
“This is how the game is played,” Moustakas said. “I don’t think (outlawing shifts) should happen.”
Moustakas found the perfect solution to shifting defenses in October — by taking the overland route. Yes, he bunted once for a base hit. But he also belted five home runs in 15 playoff games, setting a franchise record for homers in a postseason.
If nothing else, Moustakas has come to grips with the defensive attention.
“If they make a play, they make a play,” Moustakas said. “It just seeing the ball where it’s pitched, and not forcing anything.”