If there is one string of hope Royals fans can pull out of a dismal 5-15 start to the 2018 season, it is this:
Third baseman Mike Moustakas is hitting the baseball hard at a rate more consistent than ever.
While the phenomenon itself won’t solve all the Royals’ problems, it does make it more likely for Moustakas to get a hit, which he has done in 14 consecutive games, and rack up bases in the box score.
It happened on Friday, when Moustakas uncorked an effortless swing at Comerica Park in the first game of a doubleheader against the Tigers.
He brought his hands down from over his left shoulder, whipped his bat through the strike zone and barreled an 88 mph slider from Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer. He snapped up his head to watch, but there was little doubt of the ball’s destination as it traced an arc through the clear downtown Detroit sky.
The ball landed in the stands 5.2 seconds later. As a few fans in the sparsely occupied right-field seats went after it, Moustakas crossed home plate. He’d just launched his fifth homer of the season, this one on a swing loaded with so much power that the ball left his bat at 105.5 mph.
And it happened again Sunday, when Moustakas launched his sixth homer of the season onto a Tireman Auto Service tarp covering the right-field tunnel at the Tigers’ ballpark. That three-run homer had a little less pop — still, 101.9 mph — but extended his hitting streak and provided the Royals’ fifth win of the season.
Asked during the four-game series if he’s taken a different approach at the plate this season, Moustakas downplayed the idea.
“Just trying to see the ball and get good pitches to hit and put good swings on them,” said Moustakas, who is hitting .318 (27 for 85) with 17 RBIs. “Not trying to do too much. Just get good pitches and try to hit the barrel.”
He’s done that — and more — through the Royals’ first 20 games.
Moustakas has hit 38 baseballs with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher, according to MLB’s Statcast system. Some of them have gone for base hits, others for home runs. That number is the second highest in the league. Only the Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu, with 43, has recorded more.
The way Fangraphs sees it, Moustakas ranks 12th in hard-hit rate. His 48 percent, which is calculated based on a baseball’s hang time, trajectory and landing spot (not exit velocity), is the best among all third basemen. His rate is higher even than the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton (46.9 percent) and Aaron Judge (39.2).
Of course, driving power doesn’t always show up in a box score. Hard-hit balls make outs, too.
But it’s easy to note the progress.
“He’s just smoking the ball to all fields,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Down the third-base line, in the gaps, swinging the bat really well. Just playing really well.”
During his best month of a 2017 campaign that saw him club 38 home runs and break Steve Balboni’s franchise record, Moustakas never generated similar power. In the midst of batting .313 and slugging .635 with eight home runs in June, he made hard contact just 34.2 percent of the time. He registered a season-high 37.9 percent hard contact in April, hovered around 34 from June to August, then dipped to 20.8 percent in September after he sustained a knee injury.
In the end, his full-season rate of 31.9 percent didn’t crack baseball’s top 30. Out of 144 qualified players, Moustakas languished in the bottom 51, tied with the Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez and the Pirates’ David Freese.
Same goes for Moustakas' average exit velocity, which was 87.3 mph last season.
It’s up to 93.8 mph, though, through the first three-plus weeks of 2018.
“The ball is coming off his a little bit harder and maybe catching the ball a little bit more out front,” said Royals hitting coach Terry Bradshaw, who first worked with Moustakas when the third baseman played at Class AA Northwest Arkansas in 2010. “He’s driving the ball.”
Perhaps this torrid start is a direct response to Moustakas’ collapse in the free-agent market.
Maybe Moustakas feels like he has something to prove after withstanding an extended offseason and never receiving the long-term contract offer he sought.
Whatever the reason, Moustakas is something of a different hitter this season.
And that’s no small thing.
“Everything that went on with him in the offseason, he put in the work and took it to the that, ‘I’m gonna go out and prove to the baseball world that I’m a good player,’” Bradshaw said. “I think he’s improving.
"For me, it’s from when I saw him in 2010 in Northwest Arkansas, to today, even the year he had last year. He’s like all these guys — never satisfied.”