Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi is a baseball executive with an undergraduate degree from MIT and a doctorate in behavioral economics from Cal. He is, at his core, a numbers-crunching analyst who cut his teeth in the statistical oasis that is the Oakland A’s front office, an inquisitive thinker whose views skew sabermetric. But on a summer day five years ago, Zaidi did not need a spreadsheet nor a regression analysis to recognize the potential in a 28-year-old journeyman crushing baseballs inside a minor-league ballpark in Sacramento.
Zaidi had come to see Brandon Moss, an outfielder with good numbers and solid power and a resume of near misses. He had nearly quit baseball and returned home to tiny Loganville, Ga., to become a firefighter. He had been traded and released and washed out of two different organizations. By the spring of 2012, Moss had considered the last refuge of a scuffling slugger — a sabbatical in Japan. He needed the money, he thought. His career was stalled. What else would you do when the baseball industry deems you not good enough?
“I had to wait for an opportunity,” Moss says. “Once you blow them, not too many people get another one.”
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So here was Moss, toiling away for the Sacramento River Cats in the opening months of the 2012 season, and here was Zaidi, an assistant general manager for the A’s, making the rounds in the final weeks of May. As the days passed inside Raley Stadium, Zaidi kept watching Moss. He saw a player grinding out long at-bats, a slugger hitting good pitches, an asset that needed to be in Oakland.
“He was just too good for that level,” Zaidi says.
In the days that followed, Zaidi compiled a scouting dossier and sent a detailed email to A’s general manager Billy Beane — “The Moss Manifesto”, as Beane later put it — making the case for a callup. What happened next delighted both executive and player and helped launch two careers. Gifted one more chance, Moss would finally stick. In 2 1/2 seasons in Oakland, he would club 76 homers, reach base at a .340 clip and help the A’s to three playoff appearances. The breakthrough included an All-Star appearance at the age of 30 and a baseball lesson that still defines his career.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing,” Zaidi says.
Five years later, Moss is standing inside the Royals clubhouse on a quiet February morning at spring training. He is 33 years old now, on his seventh organization, the newest member of the Royals’ lineup after signing a two-year, $12 million deal in late January. General manager Dayton Moore believes Moss’ power can help lengthen out a lineup that finished 13th in the American League in runs scored last season. Manager Ned Yost believes Moss’ experience will benefit a clubhouse renowned for its chemistry.
“If you make a mistake,” Yost says, “he’s going to hit the ball a mile.”
But perhaps there is a lesson here, too. In 2016, the Royals finished last in the American League with 147 homers. As a new season approaches, the team has set a goal to hit more. And this is where Moss comes in. He has a story that suggests this is possible, that power can be a learned skill, that sometimes it’s all about timing and philosophy.
So let’s listen.
The story begins seven years ago, in another minor-league ballpark in Indianapolis. Moss was a Triple-A outfielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He had recently been demoted from the major leagues. His hitting coach had a suggestion.
For years, Moss had thought of himself as a gap-to-gap hitter. He desired to hit line drives and collect hits. The homers would come. Yet after fours years of bouncing from the minors to the majors, the philosophy had never paid off. He didn’t stick with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 or 2008. The same with the Pirates in 2009 and 2010. When he returned to Class AAA Indianapolis that summer, hitting coach Jeff Branson had an idea. In batting practice, Moss would put on a show, showing off immense power. But the pop didn’t always translate to games. So Branson had an idea: He wanted Moss to cut loose.
“He encouraged me to try to do it in a game,” Moss says. “It took a lot for me to mentally get through that block of being afraid to swing and miss and look stupid. But once I got through that, it really translated well for me.”
In some ways, Moss says, the adjustment was simple. Swing hard. Sell out for power. Forget about collecting singles. Let the big dog eat.
“Try to hit the ball over the fence,” he says.
But in time, there were more changes. Once he bought into his new identity, he started to look for ways to build on the plan. He re-fashioned his swing plane to hit more balls in the air. He changed the trajectory to make it steeper, hoping to elevate the ball at contact.
“Instead of having this swing that’s kind of on a plane to try to hit these line drives, I made it steep to where you catch the ball and send it into the air,” Moss says. “That’s really the only thing. But it really wasn’t that hard of an adjustment.”
In baseball, of course, there is an old maxim that a player cannot try to hit home runs. They are the result of talent, timing and kismet, and to attempt to hit the ball over the fence is a fool’s errand. In Moss’s view, this is only half right. No player can hit homers on command. This is obvious. But you can massage the conditions to make them just right.
“You spend some time tinkering and figuring out how it’s easier to hit the ball in the air more often,” Moss says. “And then you do it.”
For Moss, the results came immediately. In 2010, he would hit a career-high 22 homers in 120 games at Indianapolis. The next year, he crushed 23 homers for Lehigh Valley, the Phillies’ Class AAA affiliate. His strikeout numbers remained a concern, but his fly-ball rate soared. The Oakland A’s liked the power potential.
Moss signed with the A’s in 2012, in part to play in the homer-crazy Pacific Coast League. Once there, his baseball education continued. The Oakland organization obsessed over “rates,” he says — ground-ball rates, fly-ball rates, strikeout rates, numbers that offered a window into a player’s ability. Moss had never been that interested in analytics. But the tenure gave him a new perspective.
“I kind of became more sabermetrically minded,” he says. “And I started looking at analytics a little bit differently. And how they tell the story of a player.”
They don’t tell the whole story, he says. Baseball is still baseball. But for him, the story was simple. He was Brandon Moss, and he was in the lineup to hit the ball over the fence.
The Royals signed Brandon Moss to be Brandon Moss. On most days, he will likely slot into the designated hitter spot and add power to the bottom half of the lineup. With the additions of Moss and outfielder Jorge Soler— and the return of a healthy Mike Moustakas — club officials believe the lineup features six players who could surpass 20 homers.
Yet there are still questions. A season ago, Moss hit 28 homers in 128 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. But his overall production was limited by an extended slump during the second half. He finished the season batting .225 with a .300 on-base percentage. He struck out 140 times in 464 plate-appearances. His free-agent value cratered as the slump wore on.
Some of the issues stemmed from a ankle sprain that sidelined him for most of July and took months to heal. But Moss does not wish to use the injury as an excuse — even if it did not feel right until the offseason.
“I wasn’t at 100 percent health,” Moss says. “[But] that was just a minor part of it. I was just having bad at-bats.”
In this way, Moss is back to being overlooked. He hung on the free-agent market for most of the offseason before the Royals swooped in, hoping to secure a value pickup. After two seasons that did not approach his performance in Oakland, he must rebuild his reputation while replacing Kendrys Morales in the Kansas City offense.
Moss has always worked on his own schedule. It took him until age 28 to establish himself in the big leagues. Now he believes he has productive seasons left. He has set a goal to be more selective this year, to get back to grinding out long at-bats. But for Moss, it all comes back to a simple plan: Try to hit the ball over the fence.
“Baseball has a way of working itself out,” Moss says. “You just gotta let it do its thing.”