Royals’ Mike Moustakas has rekindled his power stroke

Mike Moustakas keeps hitting dingers as Royals beat the Tigers

Mike Moustakas hit his fifth homer on Thursday in a 4-0 victory over the Tigers. He's on pace for the most homers of his career.
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Mike Moustakas hit his fifth homer on Thursday in a 4-0 victory over the Tigers. He's on pace for the most homers of his career.

On Wednesday afternoon, one day after crushing his seventh homer of April, Mike Moustakas carried a plate of tacos in his right hand as he pressed through the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. He had picked out an afternoon snack before another round of early hitting, and in the hours before another game, Moustakas snarfed down the (not moose) tacos before stepping into a cage and taking his cuts.

You could say this workout was for maintenance purposes. For close to three weeks, Moustakas’ swing has been grooved to a familiar plane, locked in and comfortable, a 27-year-old finding his power stroke in the season’s first month. In the Royals’ first 20 games, Moustakas slugged seven homers and matched his career high for homers in a month. As the Royals open a three-game series against Seattle on Friday night, Moustakas sits four homers behind Jermaine Dye’s April record of 11.

“It’s nice to see,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “He’s putting together great at-bats.”

At first glance, Moustakas’ solid start is just that — a start, three weeks in a marathon season. He is batting .275 with five doubles in 88 plate appearances. Along with teammate Eric Hosmer, who carries a career-high 17-game hitting streak into Friday, he is one of two Royals carrying an offense that scuffled while suffering a three-game sweep at Anaheim this week.

But if you take a closer look, the numbers perhaps suggest something more. Moustakas has backed up a second-half power surge in 2015 with more of the same in 2016. He blasted 15 homers after the All-Star break last year, including seven during the month of September. In all, he has hit 23 homers in his last 388 at-bats, dating back to the All-Star break and including the postseason.

If he maintained that pace for all of 2016, he could soar past his career high of 22 homers, set last last year.

“I’m just trying to see the ball and put a good swing on it,” Moustakas says. “I’m not trying to do too much. I’m trying to stay in that left-center field gap.”

The final words, Moustakas says, remain key. A year ago, he retooled his swing after the most frustrating and humbling regular season of his career. He focused on staying back and hitting the ball to the opposite field. He set forth to beat the defensive shifts that had doomed him in 2014, when he batted .212 with a .271 on-base percentage and 15 homers.

The adjustment paid dividends last April. He batted .356 with three homers and six doubles. The torrid start propelled him to his first All-Star appearance and a career season at the plate. But while Moustakas spent last April hitting line drives to all fields, the high-end power would surface later. He had just five homers at the end of May. He did not record his seventh homer until June 24 of last summer.

That changed during the second half, and it has continued in 2016, Moustakas showcasing the sort of power that defined his rise through the minor leagues. As the Royals prepare for another series in Seattle, Moustakas says that his approach remains the same, that he doesn’t attempt to pull the baseball unless it’s a pitch he can handle.

But a brief study of his homers reveals a few trends: Four of Moustakas’ homers have come on pitches slower than 90 mph. Five have come on fastballs, including three that clocked in at faster than 92 mph. All but one have been pulled to right field or driven out toward dead center field. But the results also show a hitter who is comfortable waiting on an off-speed pitch or driving a fastball to the middle of the field.

It is perhaps too early to start the Balboni Watch — against most odds, the Royals’ single-season home run record remains at 36 after three decades, the lowest number among all major-league teams, a continuing testament to the slugging first baseman Steve Balboni.

But for the moment, the Royals are hopeful that the current Moustakas is the real Moustakas. After a breakout season, he has picked up where he left off, in both approach and production.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to get some balls over the plate that I’ve been able to hit out of the yard,” Moustakas said.

Here is a look at Moustakas’ seven homers this month:

No. 1: April 9 against Minnesota

The pitch: 87 mph fastball

The count: 3-2

The pitcher: Left-hander Tommy Milone

In a 7-0 victory at Kauffman Stadium, Moustakas saw a 3-2 fastball from Twins starter Tommy Milone and roped a solo shot to right field.

No. 2: April 10 against Minnesota

The pitch: 92 mph fastball

The count: 2-1

The pitcher: Right-hander Ricky Nolasco

With the Royals trailing 2-0, Moustakas pulled a fastball into the right-field party porch at Kauffman Stadium. The solo shot cut the lead to 2-1 in an eventual 4-3 victory in 10 innings.

No. 3: April 14 at Houston

The pitch: 79 mph cutter

The count: 1-2

The pitcher: Right-hander Doug Fister

Astros starter Doug Fister threw a 79 mph offspeed pitch that cut across the middle of the strike zone. Moustakas stayed back and lifted a drive high and deep down the line at Minute Maid Park. It was another solo homer. The Royals won 6-2.

No. 4: April 17 at Oakland

The pitch: 94 mph sinker

The count: 2-1

The pitcher: Right-hander Chris Bassitt

Another solo homer in a game the Royals would lose. This time, Moustakas caught up to a 94 mph fastball in the heart of the zone and blasted one to right-center at the Oakland Coliseum.

No. 5: April 21 against Detroit

The pitch: 92 mph sinker

The count: 1-1

The pitcher: Right-hander Mike Pelfrey

With nobody on and the Royals leading 2-0, Moustakas sat on a 92 mph fastball near the middle of the plate and powered one out to dead center field.

No. 6: April 22 against Baltimore

The pitch: 84 mph changeup

The count: 0-0

The pitcher: Right-hander Yovani Gallardo

Orioles starter Yovani Gallardo threw a first-pitch changeup toward the outside corner of the plate. Moustakas sat back and unloaded on the pitch, squaring up the offering and sending it deep to center field.

No. 7: April 26 at Los Angeles

The pitch: 84 mph fastball

The count: 1-1

The pitcher: Right-hander Jered Weaver

The only homer that landed left of dead center field. Moustakas waited on Jered Weaver’s slow fastball, which can resemble a changeup, and lifted a homer just over the outstretched glove of center fielder Mike Trout.

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