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A Chilly Reception for Mike Moustakas

Among the plethora of blue-chippers that the Kansas City Royals can call their own, Mike Moustakas was by most accounts the most anticipated Royal prospect to arrive on the major league stage (with due respect to Eric Hosmer). His 36 home runs and 124 RBI over 118 minor league games in 2010 had fantasy managers salivating for a call-up. After making mincemeat out of opposing minor league pitchers early this season, the Royals didn’t waste any additional time. He immediately singled in his first major league at-bat, hit a 391-foot home run off Joel Pineiro in his fourth at-bat, and it seemed the Moustakas era was off and running. But that’s pretty much the entirety of the good news.

What has gone wrong? Well, just about everything.

He has just over 200 plate appearances in the big leagues, and he has yet to flash the tremendous bat that he demonstrated over four quick years in the minors. Although June wasn’t too terribly unkind to him as he posted a .263 batting average and .354 OBP, he still struggled in the power department with a .316 slugging percentage, and it only got worse from there. July and August represented the lowest slugging percentages for all qualified third basemen, and by a great distance, at .223 and .128, respectively. To illustrate just how much Moutakas has struggled, his current wOBA stands at .218 which is lower than even Chone Figgins.

His triple slash stands at .184/.242/.232, and he currently holds a 28 wRC+. Twenty Eight.

While his hit trajectory distribution isn’t particularly alarming, his HR/FB rate sits at a laughable 1.5% in large part due to a truly ridiculous 27.3% IFFB rate. Indeed, it’s tough to hit the ball out of the park when it doesn’t clear the infield. That 27.3% leads all position players in infield fly balls and if it remains that high, it would qualify for the worst IFFB rate since Adam Everett hit 28.2% of fly balls to the infield in 2007 (although he at least slugged .316 that year). So Moustakas is obviously either lifting the ball or simply having trouble squaring it up. Is he getting unlucky? Perhaps a bit. He currently has a BABIP of .214 but his expected BABIP based on his hit trajectory is .241. But .241 isn’t really anything to get too excited about, even if it does suggest a few balls haven’t quite squeaked through when they should have.

His swinging strike rate and his strikeout percentage are within an expected range for Moustakas at about a league average 8.3% on the SwStr% and 15.3% K%, but he is having incredible difficulty with off-speed pitches. He is currently more than five runs below average per 100 pitches on the slider, which qualifies for worst among all position players and he’s three runs below average per 100 pitches on the change. Although, it should be noted that it’s not just the off-speed pitches that he’s struggling with as he currently isn’t close to league average on any single pitch type.

I’ve read where Moustakas isn’t “making the right adjustments,” according to his coaches, in whatever particular form they believe that to be. But what is clear is that his ability to make contact on off-speed pitches has only grown worse over the course of his time in the major leagues as his whiff rate has ballooned from his first month to his second month at this level:

The worst examples are his whiff rates on sliders and curves that went from roughly 12% over his first month to 23% and 25%, respectively. He’s not getting any more comfortable at the plate the more they trot him out there, and I certainly hope they have a sports psychologist on the payroll in KC to ensure that this debacle doesn’t negatively impact the immense potential that Moustakas has.

The good news for Moustakas owners is the team appears committed to letting him try to hit his way out of this funk, and given their place in the standings and his plus defense thus far, that’s understandable. What remains to be seen of course, is whether he can at least partially right the ship and have some modicum of momentum headed into 2012. He only has 200 plate appearances and we know that’s a sample too small to draw conclusions from on most offensive statistics, and certainly those kicked around in this post. In fact, he will likely not reach enough plate appearances this season for most important statistics to reasonably stabilize.

For fantasy baseball purposes, keeper league managers will have an interesting decision if you have other well established third basemen already on your team. Others will most certainly have Moustakas on your radar as a good later round value pick.

Chances are, his rookie season will be a little blip on the radar of a highly successful major league career, but this most certainly wasn’t the introduction Mike Moustakas or the Kansas City Royals envisioned.