On Wednesday, a little after 4 p.m. at Safeco Field, Mike Moustakas pulled a wooden bat from a long blue duffel bag and walked down a hallway to an indoor batting cage. It was here, tucked behind a nondescript doorway in the bowels of a baseball stadium, that another home run was born. It was here, amid the echoing staccato rhythm of baseball meeting wood, that a plan took shape.
In the midst of the greatest season of his career, Moustakas, the Royals’ third baseman, has maintained a simple routine. In the hours before each game, he joins teammate Eric Hosmer and hitting coach Dale Sveum for an early hitting workout that doubles as an intel briefing and strategy session. As Sveum flips baseballs in the cage, and Moustakas and Hosmer take their cuts, the process begins.
Sveum goes over the starting pitcher that night, discussing his stuff, his strengths and his tendencies. The players discuss the approach for certain counts and specific situations — runners on, two outs, late innings. The conversation, Moustakas says, will last all night, bleeding into the moments before each at-bat. The game of cat-and-mouse between pitcher and hitter never ends. But the afternoon sessions offer a base of support, a theme for the night, an approach to trust.
“We start talking about things,” Moustakas says. “And we figure out a good game plan.”
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The story can sound elementary, of course. To hit the best pitchers in the world requires some level of routine planning. The best hitters in baseball live and die by their approach at the plate. But for Moustakas, a 28-year-old in his seventh season, the path to a home run explosion begins here.
“I’m really trying not to do too much,” he says.
Moustakas has mastered the art. In the hours after another meeting on Wednesday, he clubbed his 25th home run in a 9-6 victory over the Seattle Mariners as the Royals completed a three-game sweep. Across three months and 76 games, he has crafted the greatest half season by a Royals power hitter in franchise history.
Moustakas remains on pace to shatter the club record for homers, burying Steve Balboni and the infamous number 36. He surpassed his own career high of 22 on Tuesday, entering Friday with six homers in eight games. One year after a torn ACL robbed him of a promising season, he is headed back to the All-Star Game for the second time in three years after winning the Final Vote on Thursday. Naturally, he will compete in the Home Run Derby on Monday at Marlins Park in Miami, where a national television audience will witness his power stroke, reconfigured and refined across the last three seasons.
“On paper, he’s got as good of mechanics as you can find,” Sveum said. “The weight shift, the head … his swing path and everything creates homers. He hits the ball in the air.”
The formula is potent. Moustakas combines world-class hand-eye coordination, a compact power stroke and brute strength provided by a stocky 6-foot frame. In some ways, this is the finished product the Royals anticipated, the talent they believed in more than a decade ago. Moustakas was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft in 2007. He set the California state record for career homers (52) at Chatsworth High School. He drilled 36 homers in 2010 while splitting time at Class AA Northwest Arkansas and Class AAA Omaha. One Royals official once thought Moustakas capable of hitting 400 homers in his career.
Yet the origins of a 2017 power surge began 2 1/2 years ago, in the months before the 2015 season. Moustakas was coming off the worst year of his career, recording a .212 batting average and 15 homers before a breakout performance in the 2014 postseason. In the months before Opening Day, Moustakas and Sveum retooled his swing, focusing on hitting the ball the other way, away from the defensive shifts that had haunted him.
The adjustment changed his career, but in more ways than you might think. In the three months before the 2015 All-Star break, Moustakas sprayed the ball all over the field. Once a dead-pull hitter, he set a career high with 27.4 percent of balls hit to the opposite field in 2015. As the Royals seized control of the American League Central race, Moustakas earned his first All-Star appearance.
But then something happened, Sveum says. The league began adjusting back to Moustakas, pounding him inside with fastballs. So Sveum and Moustakas worked on another mechanical adjustment, tweaking his swing to allow him to get his barrel to the inside pitch.
The statistics point to the midway point of the 2015 season as a dividing line. Before it, Moustakas had engineered a career breakout with a retooled swing. In the second half, he evolved into a true power threat.
“People think players cover both sides of the plate,” Sveum said. “But not really. Not too many people have been that good in the history of the game to cover both sides of the plate. You just can’t.”
And yet, the version of Moustakas that emerged in late 2015 was a force. After hitting seven homers in his first 300 at-bats in 2015, Moustakas finished the season by crushing 15 more in his final 243 at-bats. He added seven homers in April last year before a hand injury landed him on the disabled list and a knee injury ended his season. In 2017, he has picked up where he left off. In just 302 at-bats, he has piled up 25 homers. As Thursday began, he was tied with Houston’s George Springer for the second most in baseball, trailing only New York Yankees rookie Aaron Judge.
Moustakas’ ascension has come as home run totals have spiked across the game. The league is on pace to set a new record for total homers, surpassing the inflated numbers from the Steroid Era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The trends have inspired theories of a “juiced” or altered baseball that has caused power numbers to soar.
Yet Sveum sees other, more specific reasons for Moustakas’ development. At the age of 28, Moustakas has learned to sit on off-speed pitches, attacking changeups and breaking balls. After drilling an 0-2 slider for a two-run shot on Wednesday, 13 of Moustakas’ 25 homers have come against off-speed pitches.
“It’s probably the biggest key to his season,” Sveum said. “It’s scary for people to think they’re going to sit on off speed and get beat by a fastball. But in this day and age, pitchers are pretty much throwing just as many off-speed pitches as fastballs.
“Sometimes you’re like: ‘Would you rather hit 94 or would you rather hit 83 sitting on it? I’d rather take 15 mph off something and hit it.”
Standing inside a visitors clubhouse on a recent night in June, Moustakas said he’s still committed to using all fields. In batting practice, he spends his first round hitting line drives to left field before moving on to the next task. But his elite hand-eye coordination and natural swing path allows him to see off-speed pitches in the zone and put those baseballs in the seats in right field.
“He’s got great mechanics,” Sveum said. “If he was a little more selective, he could win a batting title, too.”
For now, Moustakas appears comfortable with the hitter he has become. He is locked in and driving baseballs at a torrid pace. In some moments, he is more aggressive than ever. Moustakas is swinging at 57 percent of pitches this season, according to numbers from FanGraphs. In his career, he has never offered at more than 49 percent. Sveum says some of the increase could be explained by Moustakas’ instinct to expand the zone with two strikes. His hand-eye coordination allows him to foul off bad pitches and extend at-bats. But some of it can be traced back to the afternoon sessions in the batting cage. Moustakas has become more adept at handling breaking balls. He has become more comfortable sitting on certain pitches. Every so often, he will listen to Sveum, look for a pitch in one spot and try to take a shot.
The plan does not always work, of course. Baseball is baseball. The deck is stacked in the pitcher’s favor. But armed with a simple approach and a refined gift, Moustakas has found comfort and confidence. On Tuesday night at Safeco Field, he faced Seattle’s Felix Hernandez with one man on in the fourth inning. As he stood inside the batter’s box, Moustakas told himself to look for something in a small space out over the plate. He recognized a first-pitch breaking ball and unleashed his barrel. He lined the baseball into the seats in right field, his 24th home run.
“Against a guy like that, you have to have a good plan,” Moustakas said. “You got to have something you can hang your hat on, and I was just looking for something out over the plate.”