Judging the Royals

Mike Moustakas and how milestone numbers can put you in a slump

Mike Moustakas was batting .282 after hitting his 35th home run. He has hit .207 since then.
Mike Moustakas was batting .282 after hitting his 35th home run. He has hit .207 since then. jsleezer@kcstar.com

After two innings of Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Indians, the Royals were down 12-0. By the third inning the only suspense left in the game was whether the Royals would score a run or get shut out three days in a row.

Tom Hanks might have been Sleepless in Seattle, but the Royals were Scoreless in Cleveland.

During that 12-0 blowout, Royals designated hitter Mike Moustakas was 0-4 and that brings us to the subject of this column.

On Aug. 15 against the Oakland A’s, Mike Moustakas hit his 35th home run of the season. One more home run and Moustakas ties the Royals single-season record of 36 home runs set by Steve Balboni, two more home runs and Moustakas breaks the record.

Now here’s the bad news:

Moustakas was batting .282 after hitting his 35th home run. He has hit .207 since then.

Wait, there’s more: when Moustakas hit that home run he had struck out 69 times in 425 at-bats (16 percent). Since hitting that home run Moustakas has struck out eight times in 29 at-bats (27 percent).

So why has Mike Moustakas hit worse since his 35th home run?

First, never ignore small sample size. When a player has 458 at-bats it wouldn’t be hard to find 29 consecutive at-bats that make him look good or bad. So maybe those numbers are just part of the ups and downs all ballplayers endure.

But approaching a milestone number can put players in a slump.

Everybody knows Moustakas needs two more home runs

Before a series begins, teams hold two meetings; one with the hitters and another with the pitchers. Those players are given the latest information on the other team; who’s hot, who’s not and anything else that might be helpful.

And knowing that an opposing player is about to achieve a milestone number is helpful information: if you know what your opponent is trying to do, you have a better idea of how to stop him.

Moustakas has 35 home runs and 25 of those home runs were hit to pull side of the field, nine were hit to center field and only one was hit to the opposite field. Mike Moustakas needs two more home runs to set a record and his best chance of doing that is to pull the ball and pitchers can use that against him.

How Moustakas was pitched in Sunday’s game

If a pitcher knows a hitter is trying to pull the ball, the pitcher can use that information in a couple ways: first, he can throw pitches to the outside part of the plate and let the hitter reach out and pull those outside pitches. Because the pitches are too far away, the hitter won’t be able to hit the ball with much authority.

Second, to pull the ball the hitter has to get his bat head out in front quickly, so the hitter will be vulnerable to off-speed stuff; show the hitter fastballs to speed up his bat, then throw off-speed pitches for a swing-and-miss.

On Sunday, in Moustakas’ first at-bat, he saw four pitches: all of them away and only one of them a strike and that strike was a change-up. But even though he was getting nothing to hit, Moustakas was still swinging and punched out.

In his second at-bat, Moustakas saw two pitches: both on the outer third of the plate. Moustakas pulled the ball and grounded out to Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, but the Indians had a shift on and Lindor was on the right-field side of second base.

In his third at-bat Moustakas saw four pitches, finally got an inside pitch, but lined out to right field.

In his fourth at-bat Moustakas saw two pitches, both away off the plate, and this time went with the outside pitch and flew out to left field.

So to sum up: Moustakas saw 12 pitches Sunday and only one was on the inside part of the plate.

Monday night the Royals start a series with the Rays and don’t be surprised if they continue to pound the outside corner when Moustakas is hitting. If he tries to pull the ball to hit that 36th homer, the Rays will use that against him.

So what should Moustakas do?

I’m about to speculate and here’s why:

Hitters do not like to talk to the media about hitting because hitters know it’s easy to talk your way into a slump. A reporter asks a question and the hitter starts thinking about something he’s been trying to put out of his mind.

My guess is Moustakas is trying very hard to not think about hitting a home run, but if I ask him about it and I’m right, I then made him think about something he’s trying to ignore.

And hitters are very superstitious.

Earlier this season, Eric Hosmer wanted to choke me when I mentioned him being in a hot streak: I might have jinxed him and ended that streak. So if I ask Moustakas about hitting home runs I might jinx him.

See the problem?

Because I can’t ask Moustakas about hitting home runs without risking the wrath of the Gods of Baseball, here’s some more speculation:

Moustakas should try to go about his business in the exact same way he was going about his business before he hit his 35th home run. After all, that approach worked 35 times. Moustakas should just try to have good at-bats and let the next two homers happen.

Home-run hitters will tell you it’s very hard to hit a home run on the wrong pitch. If Moustakas gets the right pitch — a hanging breaking ball or middle-in fastball in a fastball count — the home runs will happen without him trying to hit one.

And after Moustakas hits two more, I can ask him about it.

Enjoy the game.