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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.