Mike Moustakas and the fine art of infield defense
03/20/2014 3:01 PM
03/20/2014 3:02 PM
If memory serves—and it often doesn’t—it was the top of the ninth, the bases were loaded, there were two outs, the Royals were up by one run and Alex Rodriguez was at the plate. (To be honest I thought it was Derek Jeter, but Mike Moustakas says it was A-Rod, so we’ll go with Mike’s version.) Rodriguez hit a weak grounder to third; if Moustakas could throw out A-Rod, game over—the Royals would win. Fail to make the play and the runner on third would cross the plate—the score would be tied.
Moustakas made the play—but it wasn’t easy.
Mike had to charge the ball, bend down, field it and then make the throw without ever straightening up; there was no time to throw from a normal arm angle. The throw had to be made while Mike was running and still bent over and that takes practice. Not long before he made the A-Rod play, Moose had been working on that throw with then-infield coach, Eddie Rodriguez. Mike was more comfortable fielding the ball, straightening up andthen
making the throw, but Eddie told Mike that sooner or later he was going to need to be able to make an accurate throw on the run while still bent over.
During that practice session a few of Mike’s throws had a better chance of being caught by a beer vendor than a first baseman. That particular throw—the third baseman charging and throwing like a submarining pitcher—has a tendency to curve toward foul territory. Moose had to learn to throw the ball a few feet to the fair territory side of first base and let the ball curve back to its intended target. And it all had to be done in a hurry.
Even after that practice session Mike was still straightening up to make his throws in games. At the time he told me he wasn’t comfortable with the low-arm angle throw—yet. So it was very cool to see Moose break it out under pressure and win a ballgame because he’d put the necessary work in earlier.
And that brings us to Mike Moustakas playing second base.
Wednesday afternoon Mike was out on a Surprise practice field working with coaches Dale Sveum and Mike Jirschele. Afterwards Moustakas said it was a "crash course" on playing second base, including the footwork necessary to turn a double play. Less than 24 hours later, Mike was playing second base against the Angels.
If the Royals break camp without a true utility infielder—a guy who can play all around the infield—the plan might be to move Omar Infante to short when Alcides Escobar sits down. In that case the Royals need someone to fill in at second. Moustakas and Danny Valencia are candidates for the job. (Valencia started at second base in Wednesday night’s game.)
The stuff we see on a big league ball field is hard. We see amazing plays every night and they look effortless, but only because the players put the work in to make the playsseem
effortless. Big league infielders are constantly working to shave a fraction of a second off defensive plays because that might make the difference in a ball game. Learn to throw from underneath and you win a game. Take time to straighten up and you lose.
Managers like players with flexibility; it makes their lives easier. If Moustakas or Valencia can handle second base Ned Yost has one more option in a pinch. But every position has a skill set that takes years to fully develop. When the Royals asked Mike Aviles to play second base he struggled with the 6-4-3 double play. During the 5-4-3 double play the second baseman is looking at third and can see the runner coming using peripheral vision. If the shortstop starts a 6-4-3 double play by going to his right—toward third base—the second baseman can still see the runner out of the corner of his eye. But if the shortstop has to go to his left—up the middle—the second baseman has his back turned to first base. He can’t see the runner coming and won’t know when the runner will arrive—that can be an uncomfortable feeling. The second baseman knows the runner wants to knock the hell out of him, but doesn’t know when it will happen.
So if you see Moustakas or Valencia play second base, watch closely if there’s a 6-4-3 double play. How well—and how long—they hang in at second base with a runner bearing down on them will tell you something about their ability to handle playing second base.
And if they bail too soon, remember: this stuff is harder than it looks.