There were murmurs about Mike Moustakas in spring training last year. New hitting approach, new focus, finally putting things together. Such reports are common. I'm making them up, but I'm sure we heard about Jason Tyner figuring out a power stroke, or Jonathan Sanchez learning the strike zone, or Yasmany Tomas finally bought a baseball glove.
It's what we talk about in the offseason, in the preseason. You have to talk about something; "guy overcomes deficiencies" is a heck of a starting point. Most of the time, it's bunk. By the time guys get to the big leagues, have been around a couple years, they are who they are, most of the time. We see those stories, we get excited about March, we forget them in April.
Unless the guys follow through on that promise.
Opening Day last year, Moustakas was the Royals' No. 2 hitter. He had one career plate appearance, no career starts in that spot in the order. He had hit 52 career home runs, and all 52 were pulled. The murmurs told us, among other things, he was working on hitting the opposite way. And then, in the fifth inning ...
That's not decisive. It's one hit. But man, if it didn't make us remember the preseason murmurs. And then, over the course of the season ... well, Moustakas still tends to pull the ball, because you don't become a new person overnight, but the spray charts (thanks, FanGraphs) do back up the idea that the guy learned to hit the ball at least a little more around the field:
First takeaway: I wanna see that triple Moustakas hit six feet behind the first-base bag last year. Sounds fun.
Second takeaway: Yeah, he's still not all-fields Tony Gwynn, but it is more balanced. To some extent or another, Mike Moustakas learned where left field was.
The result was that a big prospect third baseman who entered his age-26 season with a .668 career OPS (82 OPS+) turned everything around in 2015. He had an OPS of .817, an OPS+ of 120. He made his first All-Star team. He garnered some MVP votes. The guy who in 2014 had been demoted to AAA set career highs in 2015 in ... well, in everything but strikeouts. A high point in runs, hits, homers, RBI, walks, rate stats. He tied his career high in doubles.
That's all the good. For the grains of salt, consider these: Moustakas neared a career high in BABIP last year, almost 30 points clear of his career average. His HR/FB rate also hit a career high, without any real corresponding rise in hard-hit rate. He turned 27 in September, which several years ago meant he would be entering his prime, but aging curves have turned a bit younger in recent years.
Those are grains of salt. They aren't big grains, but they are grains. A bigger one is that he's a third baseman, which might suddenly be the league's deepest position. We had future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre as our consensus No. 8 third baseman. Uberprospect Maikel Franco only made 11th. Heck, bounceback candidate and one-time superstar David Wright only reached 18th.
The other possible concern: Seeking confirmation. We heard the stories about Moustakas in preseason, and then they were seemingly proven true on Opening Day. I do think that the spray charts above indicate an increased ability to hit to all fields, but it's certainly within error bars that could indicate randomness. It's possible Moustakas' 2015 breakout was a season of randomness, borne of an artificial BABIP, and artificial HR/FB rate, some lucky bounces. I don't think it's true, but it can't be denied.
So Moustakas had a breakout at age 26 in 2015. He carries the upside, if that continues, of a top-eight third baseman, maybe top-six. But if it was an illusion? At a position as theoretically deep as third base, if Moustakas slips back to his pre-2015 ways, he's not even top-20.
If Moustakas is your starting fantasy third baseman, you're probably in good-maybe-great shape. But the chances that he falls flat should have you on edge.