Mike Moustakas is slumping again, or at least his production is slumping, and isn’t it interesting how different this is now?
Where once there might have been panic, now there is calm. Where once there might have been worry, now there is confidence. He’s having good plate appearances. He’s absolutely smoked some pitches and because of nothing other than rotten luck, walked back to the dugout after making an out.
Nine times this postseason alone, the Royals’ third baseman has squared a ball hard enough that it shot off his bat 100 miles per hour ... or harder. Only seven players have done that more often, and together, they are hitting .550 and slugging 1.125 on those balls. Moustakas has just one single (a .222 average) and one double (a .333 slugging percentage).
So he is in this weird place, slumping with results, but not in the part he can control. The stress of these droughts used to eat at him from the inside. He was always going to have slumps. Not just because he’s a baseball player, and all baseball players have slumps, but because there is something about his swing that scouts have long thought would lead to more streaks — good and bad — than the average hitter.
This was, actually, one of the few questions scouts had about him in the beginning. They could see slumps were coming, but Moustakas was so good — his hands so quick, and his determination so deep — that even by the time the Royals selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in 2007, he had never struggled. Ever.
A month or so after the Royals took him, actually, I went to Moustakas’ house in suburban Los Angeles for a story. You could tell how obsessed he was with baseball, even back then. He had never given much thought to any other career and was good enough that he never had to.
I spent most of two days with him and remember him being stumped only once. It was when I asked about the worst slump he had ever been in. There was a good 3, 4, maybe 5 seconds before he answered.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I had an oh-for-8 once.”
That changed when he became a professional, and in many ways that question about how he would get out of slumps defined his first four big-league seasons. Basically, he could not. Failure felt like a thousand pounds on his shoulders, and the feeling that he was letting people down — coaches, friends, most of all teammates — had the effect of quicksand beneath his feet.
This part of Moustakas’ story is well told, of course. About the fired hitting coaches, about the demotion to the minor leagues last year and about how he buried the worst season of his professional career with five home runs in the 2014 playoffs. The first came a short drive from his childhood home, in Anaheim, in the 11th inning of Game 1 of the Division Series. It won the game. The Royals would not lose until the World Series.
As he jogged around the bases that night, Moustakas did something he had never done before. He raised his right hand above his head, made a fist and slammed it down into his left hand. Maybe it didn’t look like much. But there was a spontaneous release there, and in some ways the first moment of the rest of Moustakas’ career.
He has been one of the league’s better third basemen ever since, and when the mood strikes and he hits a particularly big home run, he slams his fists as he jogs around the bases.
“When you hit a big home run, you almost lose control,” Moustakas said. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t have control over what’s going on. It just happens, you can’t explain it. You black out.”
The stories about Moustakas’ emergence always start, and usually end, with that postseason. No Royals player had ever hit five home runs in one postseason before. When he homered on opening day this year, and was one of the best players in the American League in April, it was tempting to see the transformation as complete.
But Moustakas still had another challenge to overcome. Another slump was coming. He knew this. His coaches knew this. It’s just how baseball works.
In this way, it wasn’t last postseason or this April that are so encouraging for the Royals. It’s this August.
In 14 games from July 25 to Aug. 10, Moustakas was struggling. He managed just five hits and no home runs in 47 at-bats. Here was that slump. He’d allowed himself to drown in this feeling before.
In baseball terms, he had reverted to some bad habits. He aimed his swing toward the right-field foul pole, trying to pull everything, limiting the pitches he could hit and the strength of the contact he could make. Sometimes, one bad at-bat turned into two, one bad game dripping into the next.
At some point, hitting coach Dale Sveum got Moustakas to reset. Strip down the swing. Moustakas’ greatest gift as a hitter is his hands. Those hands are so quick and so powerful. But the rest of his body was getting in the way. There was too much movement, and it was keeping his hands from working.
“He’s a very, very, incredibly gifted hitter with those hands,” Sveum said. “So you can always resort back to that. You can always take your body out of things, and that’s basically what he did.”
Sveum remembered the adjustment coming in the middle of August, after a game in Cincinnati. Moustakas homered the next night in Boston, again two nights later, again the night after that, and once more two nights after that. He was back, basically, a talented player with the cobwebs of doubt and clunky mechanics cleared again.
Nobody noticed it much, because there was so much going on, but Moustakas hit .326 with a .652 slugging percentage over his last 38 games. He was actually better over that stretch than he was in April, when he was the talk of the team.
Of course, Moustakas was dealing with something much harder and much more important than struggles at the plate. His midseason slump vaguely coincides with the end of his mother’s fight with cancer. It is only natural to wonder whether he slumped while he understandably focused on his mother. For what it’s worth, Moustakas dismisses this.
“I was dealing with some stuff with my family,” he said. “But that’s not an excuse. I came to work every day, ready to play and just wasn’t getting the job done at that time.”
Moustakas’ growth as a hitter has been one of the Royals’ great stories of the season. Alex Gordon said he relates to a high pick struggling under impossible expectations but working through it with a dogged resolve.
Lorenzo Cain said he notices Moustakas having an easier time relaxing. Eric Hosmer said he sees his friend finally comfortable, having found a routine and thought process that works at baseball’s highest level. First-base coach Rusty Kuntz said he thinks Moustakas is buoyed by the knowledge that the team needs him, not just as a hitter, but as a teammate sharing and giving energy.
There is probably some truth in all of that. Moustakas didn’t get into all those slumps in the past for more than one reason, and he was never going to get out of them with just one fix.
He’s been through so much, in other words, which means he’s needed a lot to get this far. So, sure. Call this a slump if you want. Except this time, Moustakas knows what’s beneath the surface.
Not just the way he’s hitting the ball, but the way he’s come through this before.