Judging the Royals

Mike Moustakas is hitting .331; this is how he changed his approach

Mike Moustakas got a congrats from Lorenzo Cain after Moustakas hit a solo home run in the seventh inning Tuesday against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas.
Mike Moustakas got a congrats from Lorenzo Cain after Moustakas hit a solo home run in the seventh inning Tuesday against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas. AP

Late in the 2014 season I asked Mike Moustakas about hitting against the shift, those defensive alignments where one guy is between second and third base and three guys are stationed between first and second. I wanted to know if Mike planned on changing his approach: Would he bunt and hit the ball to the left side of the field or would he continue to pull the ball and try to go over or though the shifts on the right side?

Moustakas said he was going over and through — and wound up hitting .212.

Cut to spring training: I went to Surprise, Ariz., for the last week of camp and when I watched Moustakas take his first round of batting practice, it was clear he’d changed his approach: he was taking the ball to left field.

If you know what to look for and pay attention to batting practice you can see careers being resurrected or destroyed. If a singles hitter who should be keeping the ball low and hitting it to the opposite field is using BP to pull fly balls to the warning track, you know that guy’s in trouble; he’s practicing the wrong thing.

Some guys get caught up in putting on a show in BP; they want to hit home runs for the fans. They don’t want to hit a bunch of unimpressive grounders to the opposite field when their teammates are hitting balls into the grandstands. (Which is why you put singles hitters with singles hitters if at all possible; you don’t want someone’s ego to get in the way of having a productive practice.)

So when I saw Moustakas working on going to the opposite field it told me 2015 might be a different year for him — and so far it is. Tuesday night Mike Moustakas went three-for-four and raised his average to .331.

After the game I talked to Mike about the change in his approach.

Before this season Mike spent a lot of time looking middle-in and here’s what that means: take home plate and divide it into thirds — the outside third, the middle third and the inside third. Few hitters can handle the entire plate; it’s just too big an adjustment to look away and then get to a fastball in on the hands. So lots of hitters focus on handling two-thirds of the plate: middle-in or middle-away.

When Mike was looking middle-in he had to get his swing started early. The reward can be a home run hit to the pull side of the field; the punishment is being fooled by off-speed stuff or taking a hack at a pitch in, but in off the plate. Moustakas said he did a lot of that in 2014 and it led to a lot of swings-and-misses at off-speed stuff or getting jammed by fastballs.

Here’s a baseball truism: a hitter can look away and adjust in, but a hitter can’t look in and adjust away. And pitchers tend to pitch away because it robs most hitters of power.

So Mike can look for a pitch away and still adjust to something in the middle third. If a pitch is on the inner third it feels like too much of an adjustment and he wants to let that pitch go — most of the time. Moose said he’d still look inside on certain pitches off certain pitchers in certain situations. So if a pitcher tries to pound Mike inside, he can look for that on occasion and try to get to it.

So what about power?

Tuesday night Mike was looking for a fastball away when Johnny Cueto threw him an 80-mph changeup. Because he was looking away Mike could still adjust in and get the barrel to the ball; Moose pulled a sharp line drive into the right-field corner for an RBI double. Moustakas is currently slugging .497 and has 10 doubles and four home runs — as many home runs as he had last season after the same amount of games.

Fred McGriff was once asked how he hit 30 home runs a year and Fred said there was a certain pitch in a certain location that he could hit for a home run and 30 times a year someone threw it to him. McGriff was saying that you can’t hit a home run unless you get the right pitch. Forcing the issue, trying to hit home runs on non-home run pitches is counterproductive — and that’s what was getting Moustakas in trouble.

This season Mike is taking what the pitcher and defense give him; if it’s a pitch that allows a single to the opposite field, Mike is taking the single to the opposite field. But when he gets that home run pitch — a hung curve or a flat slider or a fastball that doesn’t quite make it to the inside corner — Mike still feels like he can turn on it and get his home runs.

After a rough year in 2014 Mike Moustakas changed his approach. Mike’s mental adjustment has him playing at an All-Star level and if he keeps it up the people who wrote him off might have to make a mental adjustment of their own.

Johnny Cueto’s delivery

According to the website FanGraphs, Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto throws a fastball, a cutter, a slider, a curve and a change. He adds and subtracts velocity on his fastball; one might be 87 mph, the next one might be 95. Cueto also disrupts hitters’ timing by using different deliveries: he’s got a Luis Tiant windup where he turns his back to the hitter, then — just when you think you’re getting Tiant — he does a slide step, quick-pitch thing.

Because Cueto can deliver a pitch in more than one way, Mike Moustakas said it was like he has twice as many pitches as you think. Royals hitters took some emergency hacks when Cueto messed up their timing by altering his delivery.

So why doesn’t every pitcher do that?

Some pitchers struggle to find even one consistent delivery; throw in slide steps and quick steps and Luis Tiant swivels and they’d never be able to handle it all. This seems to be part of Danny Duffy’s problem: finding consistent mechanics that would allow him to be a consistent pitcher. You don’t want him trying to do too much.

It sounds like Duffy is getting a start on Saturday, and it’s a big one. When Jason Vargas comes back the Royals will have to decide what to do about the rotation and sending Duffy to the minors to work on his mechanics is one of the options.

Game notes

▪ Yordano Ventura threw seven innings of four-hit shutout ball and after the game Ned Yost was asked about his composure. Ned said that Yordano was the same steady guy he’d always been, which brings up a question: are we talking about the same Yordano Ventura?

▪ In Tuesday night’s game there was a pop fly hit down the right-field line and Joey Votto, the Reds first baseman, did not give chase. He let second baseman Brandon Phillips run all the way over and attempt to make a play on a ball in Votto’s area of responsibility. When a first baseman does not go after a pop fly in his area — and Billy Butler used to do the same thing — it tells you he wants no part of trying to make a difficult catch and will let a teammate try instead.

▪ Wade Davis came in to close the game and made the Reds hitters take some ugly hacks. When hitters stay balanced and take strong swings, that tells you they see the pitcher well; when hitters are lurching around and falling over as they swing, that tells you they’re overmatched.

▪ If you wondered why Davis was closing instead of Greg Holland, apparently Holland woke up Tuesday morning with a stiff neck and wound up with the night off.

▪ The Royals had a day off on Monday and first base coach Rusty Kuntz elected not to shave. Rusty showed up for the pregame work looking scruffy and I suggested his look would be complete if he’d stand in the first base coach’s box and drink wine out of a bottle wrapped in a paper sack. Rusty chose to shave — but I still like my idea better.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.

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