Royals' Mike Moustakas: 'Good to be back playing baseball again'
For nearly three years, no one had witnessed a scene like the one that unfolded Saturday evening at Kauffman Stadium.
With two outs and a one-run Royals lead in what became a 4-3 loss to the White Sox, it would have been hard to predict. Especially with a nip in the air and the wind chill settling in the 30s.
How long had it been, anyway, since Mike Moustakas hit a triple?
Yet there Moustakas was, putting his barrel on a 3-1 fastball left smack in the middle of the strike zone by White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito.
The crack of the bat sliced through the chilled air. Moustakas hustled out of the left-handed batter’s box. He wheeled around the bases, kicking up infield dirt with his cleats as he went.
When he hurtled his 6-foot, 215-pound body head-first into third base, he accomplished what he hadn’t done since May 15, 2015.
Moustakas had done so much in the intervening years. He clubbed 63 homers and 57 doubles during regular-season competition. He brought a World Series trophy back to Kansas City for the first time in 30 years and attended two All-Star games.
Moustakas even hit free agency, an experiment that ended in an agreement to a short-term homecoming.
But he hadn’t hit a triple in about 35 months.
Coming from a player who missed nearly three weeks of Cactus League competition and has often battled knee injuries, the hit seemed remarkable.
But to some, it might not have come as much of a surprise.
“I think he’s gonna continue to evolve as a hitter,” manager Ned Yost said shortly after Moustakas re-signed with the Royals a few weeks ago. “We’ve watched him get better and better and better every year.”
Yost estimated during spring training that Moustakas needed some 35 at-bats to find his timing in the batter’s box. Moustakas, who logged nine hits, including four homers, in eight games this spring, didn't need nearly that many.
“If (agent) Scott (Boras) didn’t think he was in good shape, he would have been honest with me,” general manager Dayton Moore said during the last week of spring training. “He’s looked good this spring.”
Moustakas was slowed by injuries — an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee in 2016 and discomfort in the same knee that developed after he was hit by a pitch in the hip in July — for two seasons. So far, he’s shown no signs of feeling discomfort in that beleaguered right knee.
His free run around the bases Saturday proved it.
“I just talked to Moose about his legs. … He’s running so much better,” Fox Sports Kansas City announcer Rex Hudler said during Saturday’s broadcast. “He said, ‘Hud, it’s amazing how you can run when your knee doesn’t hurt.’ ”
All Moustakas ever needed to return to full strength was time.
“I took a couple of weeks off," Moustakas said. "Started working out and started my offseason training once I got home from vacation. And then we were good to go.”
But even healthy last year, Moustakas didn’t tear the cover off the baseball. His average exit velocity, an advanced metric that measures how hard a ball is hit, hovered around 87 mph through the first half, just below league average.
Moustakas’ RBI single on opening day clocked in at 103.7 mph. Later in the game, he hit a double that registered 105.3 mph on Statcast’s radar. The number jacked up to 111.9 mph for Saturday’s triple, which was jabbed so hard into the right-field corner that it ricocheted onto the warning track and in front of the Royals bullpen door before White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia could run it down.
Moustakas’ hardest-hit ball last season came off the bat with an exit velocity of 112.9 mph. It was a ground-ball single.
Whether that above-average power translates to harder hits all season is impossible to predict. The 2018 sample size is small yet.
But in a world of advanced metrics, it is readily apparent what a healthy Moustakas can do.
“Anytime I would run or put pressure on it, it would tighten up or swell up, and I wasn’t able to get a couple of days, which I needed, or just a week that I needed to just sit and let it relax,” Moustakas said last week. “But I just wanted to go out there and keep competing with the boys."