On Mike Moustakas and Terrible Contact

We’re coming up on Memorial Day, and Mike Moustakas is hitting .152/.223/.320. That’s going to be his line for a while, because the Royals just optioned him out to Triple-A, and are going to hope he remembers how to hit against minor league pitching.

On the one hand, a case could be made that Moustakas’ performance was unsustainable, and a little positive regression would get him back to prior levels. After all, his walk and strikeout rates are right in line with career norms, and his .168 ISO is actually close to a career high. His overall line has been sabotaged by a .155 BABIP, the lowest in baseball for any player with 130 or more plate appearances. While BABIP for hitters has a wider range of true talent levels than BABIP for pitchers, no Major League player is going to run a sub-.200 BABIP for any real length of time. Given a longer leash, Moustakas’ numbers would have improved.

But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t just a small-sample BABIP problem. Over the last calendar year, Moustakas has hit just .227/.279/.368, putting up a 75 wRC+ that is only acceptable for an Andrelton Simmons-level defender. For his career, spanning over 1,600 plate appearances, Moustakas has an 80 wRC+. Even regressing Moustakas back to his career norms doesn’t make him good, and it’s not like Moustakas holds no responsibility for that .155 BABIP to begin with. In fact, his career is basically a case study in how to run a really low BABIP.

Because he’s a flyball hitter, he’s always going to run lower than average BABIPs. That’s just part of the deal when you hit the ball in the air as often as he does. League BABIP on fly balls is .131, and Moustakas hits the ball in the air almost half the time he makes contact. And he’s not exactly driving the ball; his rate of infield flies per fly ball (17.3%) is more than double his rate of home runs per fly ball (7.3%). Infield flies are basically automatic outs and have nothing to do with bad luck; they’re just bad hitting, and are essentially equivalent to an in-play strikeout. Since he debuted in 2011, only one player has a higher IFFB% than Moustakas, and Chris Young also posts one of the lowest BABIPs year in and year out.

Lots of fly balls that don’t go over the wall, with a lot of them not even leaving the outfield, is how Moustakas ran a .257 BABIP last year, and a .274 BABIP the year before. Neither one explains the .155 BABIP from this year, though, especially because he’s actually posting a career low 10.0% IFFB%. He’s hitting the ball in the air still, but at least he’s not hitting as many pop-ups as prior, and yet, his BABIP is still down 100 points from last year. Why?

Because he’s hitting the wrong pitches. For the season, Moustakas has made contact on 82.4% of the pitches he’s swung at outside the strike zone — the fifth highest rate in MLB — while only making contact on 81.4% of the pitches he’s swung at inside the strike zone. Moustakas is the only player in MLB to post a higher contact rate on balls as opposed to strikes. Of the 250 players with 100 or more plate appearances this year, the average player has a Z-Contact rate 25 percentage points higher than their O-Contact rate. 241 of the 250 have a Z-Contact rate at least 10 percentage points higher.

There are six players whose O-Contact% is within seven percentage points of their Z-Contact%. Here are those seven players, and their 2014 BABIP.

Name O-Contact Z-Contact Difference BABIP
Mike Moustakas 82% 81% -1% 0.155
Adrian Beltre 81% 85% 4% 0.302
Alberto Callaspo 87% 92% 6% 0.257
Brian Roberts 81% 87% 6% 0.275
Pablo Sandoval 77% 83% 6% 0.254
Eric Sogard 87% 94% 7% 0.209

The average BABIP for that group is .242. Even if you take Moustakas out of the sample, it’s just .259. Making contact out of the zone can be okay if you’re also making crazy amounts of contact in the zone — Victor Martinez is a current example — but if you’re swinging and missing at strikes and putting the bat on balls, well, things aren’t going to go very well for you.

For his career, Moustakas has been pretty normal in this regard, posting a 70% O-Contact% and an 88% Z-Contact%. For whatever reason, he’s been unable to hit strikes this year, and he’s compensated by hitting balls instead. That’s a pretty decent sign that something is haywire, making a trip to Triple-A a pretty decent plan. The Royals have had success rebooting failed top prospects before, and if Moustakas can figure out whatever Alex Gordon figured out, then he could still go on to have a decent career.

But right now, Moustakas is lost. Any performance this bad is going to have it’s fair share of bad luck involved, but Moustakas has earned this trip to the minors. If he wants to get back to the big leagues, figuring out how to hit strikes, and hit fewer balls, should be near the top of the priority list. And considering his lack of power, maybe just hitting fewer fly balls in general wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

36 Responses to “On Mike Moustakas and Terrible Contact”

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  1. Benzedrine says:

    Think I caught a mistake, your IFFB% stat is only based among 3rd basemen. Chris YOung has a higher IFFB%.

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  2. dixie_flyer says:

    Your article would be more readable if you would explain what the terms o-contract% and z-contract% mean. The Wall Street Journal and others routinely do this with articles containing highly technical terms.

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    • Steve says:

      dude there’s an entire glossary at the top of the website, it’s kind of implied you understand the terms there first to better understand the articles on the website since they appear in basically every article.

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    • gump says:

      Contact, not contract. They’re in the glossary if you want to look them up. Not sure if fangraphs wants to explain every stat they use, it would really clutter and article like this.

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      • It really depends writer-to-writer. I always try to explain the stats I’m using, or refer to them in plain language rather than by their acronyms, over on the Community pages. But my reason for doing this is that none of my friends are baseball nerds and if they read the articles, I don’t want them to be baffled and ask why on earth I write such madness.

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    • Steven says:

      Go to any player page on fangraphs and put your cursor on top of those stats and it will present an explanation. These are very common stats in fangraphs articles.

      Context clues can also help lead the reader to figuring out that o-contact% is the percentage of times the player makes contact on pitches outside of the strike zone when swinging at those pitches, and z-contact% is the same thing but for pitches in the zone.

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      • KCDaveInLA says:

        Pretty good translation of the relative lack of difference in O-Swing% and Z-Swing%: Mike Moustakas is not a selective hitter; while many players wait for “their” pitch, Moose seems like he’s trying to make a hit out of everything, even when it obviously does not work. Thus the oft-repeated “he seems lost at the plate.”

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        • KCDaveInLA says:

          excuse me, I meant “contact” not “swing”.

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        • Steven says:

          Moose has made considerable improvement this year at laying off pitches outside the zone (30.2% O-swing, career average near 36%, league average is around 31%), but he’s swinging at 72% of balls in the zone (league average is less than 66%). So I agree, if he sees a strike, he swings, and he usually makes contact… which means you find what part of the zone he struggles with and you pound it. He’ll lay off the balls, but if it’s in the zone he’ll roll right over top of it and dribble it to the right side. Easy out.

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    • chuckb says:

      A little humility goes a long way.

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    • Iron says:

      “For the season, Moustakas has made contact on 82.4% of the pitches he’s swung at outside the strike zone — the fifth highest rate in MLB — while only making contact on 81.4% of the pitches he’s swung at inside the strike zone.”

      Read that sentence. Look at table. If confused, repeat.

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    • Plucky says:

      Perhaps you noticed, but he used (and link-bolded) the phrase “made contact on 82.4% of the pitches he’s swung at outside the strike zone” and the quivalent phrase for Z-Contact% in the same paragraph before using the terms “Z-Contact%” and “O-Contact%”, and this occurred in the paragraph immediately preceeding the table. That ought to be adequate context to figure out what those meant. You may also have noticed that the exact same percentages (rounded) appeared in the table as in the verbiage, which could have been another clue if what the terms meant wasn’t obvious.

      Not to be too much of an elitist DB, but this isn’t the WSJ. This site operates on the assumption of fairly in-depth knowledge of the readers, and most of the readers appreciate that big chunks of the articles aren’t given over to hand-holding a general readership through stuff they already know and is detailed in a glossary. Well north of 3/4 of the readers of this article would not consider “Z-contact%” to be a “highly technical” terms

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  3. Jeff Zimmerman says:

    One of my favorite Moustakas stats is his .029/.029/.029 line on groundballs. All of which have been hit to the pull side of field.

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  4. O.W. says:

    Moustakas is certainly the poster boy for this approach, but this is also a team wide problem: KC currently ranks first in O-Contact% at 74.9%, more than 5% higher than the next team (Yankees).

    Considering their strange no walks/no strikeouts approach (26th and 30th respectively in BB%/K%), and propensity to swing at and hit junk, it’s no wonder they’re 2nd in GB%, 2nd in IFFB%, and have a stunningly low .103 ISO.

    The Royals are an abysmal hitting team. Shameless plug!:


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  5. Wobatus says:

    It’s Miller time! He’s next in line.

    For Moose’s sake maybe this will help him, a la Ike Davis last year. He was a mess and he didn’t go down until June, but in the last calendar year (which included some of his slide pre-demotion) he’s got a 128 wRC+. he’s at 127 this year and his K rate is way down, for him, to 17.9%, and he’s walking more, and he always took a walk.

    Of course, Ike doesn’t bat against lefties anymore. 0-9 this year. But he has improved against righties. He’s sacrificed some power perhaps.

    Anyway, sometimes these little minor league sojourn’s work, or at least they precede a rebound, for whatever reason. Not sure Moose can pull a Gordon, but he could improve. Miller seems a more likely candidate to get back on track.

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  6. John C says:

    It’s the Royals. They can’t develop anyone. They even managed to mess up Alex Gordon for a few years. If Wil Myers hadn’t been traded, he’d probably be hitting .170 right now.

    If the Royals are teaching Moose to hit the ball in the air that much, playing 81 games a year at Kauffman Stadium, they’re guilty of coaching malpractice. And if he’s doing it on his own, against the counsel of his hitting coach, he should have been sent to Omaha a long time ago.

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  7. CWint says:

    The Royals TEAM is like that. They make contact with pitches outside the strike zone at 75.5% rate last I checked. That rate was #1 in the MLB, by miles. Average team is about 63%.


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  8. CWint says:

    Moustakas needs to bunt to counter the shift, too…. but pointing that out right now is kinda like pointing out that mud is mostly dirt.

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  9. jim fetterolf says:

    Looks a lot like Hunter’s piece at Kings of Kauffman a few weeks back.

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  10. SeattleSlew says:

    Remember how he was hitting around .400 during ST and people were thinking he was going to have a rebound year? I think Miller was also hitting about .350 with a bunch of homers during spring and people were expecting a breakout year.

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  11. wily mo says:

    “Lots of fly balls that don’t go over the wall, with a lot of them not even leaving the outfield, is how…”

    sneaky balls to leave the outfield without going over the wall. we gotta fix that hole in the fence. no i think u mean either “leaving the infield” or “reaching the outfield” here. don’t cross the streams

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  12. Steven says:

    Can’t think of anybody else who needs a “change of scenery” more than Moose. And by “change of scenery”, I mean he needs to play for somebody less stupid than Dayton Moore and Ned Yost.

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  13. eno's revenge says:

    ever since i read eno’s article on how moustakas and hosmer bullied him i’ve hated them. so happy to see moose flame out. here’s hoping hosmer is next.

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  14. Bip says:

    Obviously, swinging at pitches outside the zone in general is a bad idea, but it seems like if a player is going to swing at a pitch out of the zone, if there are less than two strikes, it’s better to miss than to make contact. The contact will very likely be an out, whereas a miss is just a strike.

    I wonder if Moustakas would benefit from simply swinging less. He’s actually swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone than he ever has in his career, so probably not.

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  15. John Elway's OtherSelf says:

    On Mike Moustakas and Terrible Contract – coming soon.

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  16. Jason says:

    They Royals have led MLB in O-Contact % every year since 2010. This will be year 5 in a row. This is an organizational problem, not just a Moustakas problem.

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