Exactly a year ago Friday, Mike Moustakas was lost in transition, gridlocked at a crossroads of his career and relegated to a remedial assignment in Class AAA Omaha.
What the Royals’ third baseman wasn’t, though, was fragile or petulant about the demotion necessitated by his .152 average to start a season in which his arrival was not only anticipated but crucial.
Instead, general manager Dayton Moore recalled Friday, Moustakas absorbed the news almost appreciatively, with “incredible” professionalism and good body language.
As distasteful as the moment may have felt to Moustakas, who was saddened to be letting people down, he seemed to understand that something drastic had to be done to reset himself.
“I remember after the meeting was over thinking that there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to respond well with his attitude,” Moore said. “And that’s the battle in this game.”
It’s a battle that 365 days later Moustakas has grappled into a reversal that has every indication of being here to stay.
And it’s a victory that’s as emblematic of the Royals’ rise, of the patience and cultivation it’s taken, as anything else that’s happened in the last year.
Jump-started by a superb playoff performance that included hitting a franchise-record five postseason home runs, Moustakas remains unclogged and performing like a “12-year-old playing Little League,” as teammate Danny Duffy put it in spring training.
Entering the Royals’ 5-0 victory in the series opener with the Cardinals on Friday at Kauffman Stadium, Moustakas was second in the American League with a .342 average and tied for seventh in on-base percentage after amassing six hits in eight at-bats against Cincinnati.
“I quite frankly can’t say that I’ve seen a player in the big leagues make as big an improvement as Mike Moustakas has made from last year to this year,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “And … it’s not even close.”
As much as Moustakas’ metamorphosis might be about technical adjustments, though, ultimately it’s been about the battle of mind over matter.
Or at least mind over what matters.
The counterintuitive notion of “try easier” is a tough enough concept for anyone to embrace, let alone execute.
But it’s all the more so for someone with such a fierce competitive spirit.
“I’m a pretty emotional guy …,” Moustakas said recently. “I really beat myself into the ground when I don’t get the job done.”
The inclination, of course, is to squeeze harder and push more when things aren’t going well — which warps the already fine line between staying the course and sheer stubbornness.
Maybe Yost said it best during spring training.
“When you press and you try to do more than you’re capable of doing, you actually suppress the natural ability and you fight yourself,” he said.
This showed up any number of places in Moustakas’ attack in 2014, but the distinction was best encapsulated in his approach to radical shifts opponents employed to defend his frequent tendency to pull the ball.
Instead of seeking to adjust to that, Moustakas tried to muscle through it … only to be muzzled by it. He essentially declined to take what he was being given.
By spring training 2015, though, Moustakas had made a profound and pivotal decision to change that stance and seize what was there.
He’s reaped the benefits since opening day, when he hit the first opposite-field home run of his career, and now more than a third of his 51 hits have gone the other way.
Serenity now, so much so that Moustakas hardly missed a beat after returning from a recent family emergency.
So while the change has been about mechanical adjustments and all, it’s mostly about a mind-set that understood hitting the other way wasn’t a concession but an expansion.
“A lot of guys can say, ‘OK, enough’s enough,’ you know? …” Yost said. “But to go out and make it happen is a totally different thing.”
Credit for the difference goes to Moustakas, of course, but the Royals primed the pump in multiple ways for the player billed as a future cornerstone of the franchise from the time he was drafted second overall in 2007.
For one thing, even when Moore was sending Moustakas to Omaha last year, he made it clear that he still was their third baseman.
“I think he believed that, so hopefully that allowed him to commit trusting the process,” Moore said.
Then there was the other counterintuitive component: batting Moustakas second in the order, a move mocked by many at the time.
“Our hope was when we hit him second that it would give him the confidence to continue what he worked on all spring training,” Yost said.
It did just that, really, but even Yost hadn’t expected it to work like this.
“I would say probably not,” he said. “What he’s done has been … I can’t overstate (it), its been unbelievable.”
Except for this part of it:
“We’ve always believed in Mike Moustakas, because he has an incredible heart to play this game,” Moore said. “And because he has an incredible heart to play this game, he has the ability to persevere through the rough times more than perhaps some players.”