Just over a year ago, Mike Moustakas was being demoted to the minors and labeled a bust. Now, he’s an All-Star – just like he always knew he’d be.
Roger Angell, the Hall of Fame baseball writer for The New Yorker, has often waxed poetically about baseball’s unusual manner of marking time. There is no time clock, no quarter clock, no halftime, and no shot clock.
Some baseball games last two hours, others may stretch closer to four. In baseball, time is measured by outs and innings. No one “spikes the ball” or “takes a knee” to kill the clock.
But baseball’s extensive set of statistics, used in conjunction with a calendar, can reveal a great deal about a player’s passage of time.
Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas is the perfect example. Moustakas made MLB headlines Friday as the American League’s final vote winner for the 2015 All-Star Game. Royals fans did their thing again, stuffing the All-Star ballot computer with 19.3 million votes for the man they call “Moose.”
It will be the first All-Star appearance for the 26-year-old, who made himself into a household name outside Royals Nation with his hitting and fielding in the 2014 postseason, helping Kansas City to the seventh game of the World Series before falling to the San Francisco Giants.
But here’s the amazing detail, filed away in that “passage of time” folder. Just a little over a year ago, Moustakas’ struggle to hit a baseball had become so extreme that the Royals optioned him to Triple-A Omaha. On May 22, 2014, Moustakas left behind his No. 8 uniform with the Royals and joined the Omaha Storm Chasers.
The word “struggling” preceded any in-print reference to Moustakas, and the Royals replaced him with a utility player named Jimmy Paredes, who became the backup to Danny Valencia at third. The Kansas City Star referred to it as “a move that was painful but inevitable.” When Moustakas was promoted to KC in 2011, he was baseball’s No. 9 prospect according to Baseball America. He was labeled a future cornerstone of the franchise, along with first baseman Eric Hosmer.
But he headed to Omaha batting .152 and with no sign of a turnaround at the plate. General manager Dayton Moore gave the cornerstone the news last May and said Moose handled it “like a pro.”
“Good baseball players can self-evaluate,” Moore told The Star at the time. “And Mike is a good self-evaluator. He understands that it’s in his best interest to go down and focus on some things. . . . He’ll go down there and experience success, and we look forward to his contributions when he returns.”
Moustakas made another return to Kansas City on Friday. He returned to the Kauffman Stadium clubhouse after missing the Tampa Bay series on the bereavement/family medical emergency list. His mother is ill and in the midst of this glorious All-Star season, he has gone home to California twice.
He returned with a smile on his face, flirting with a .300 average in this season that has given his career new life. His 87 hits are just 10 short of his total for all of 2014, and his 25 multi-hit games already exceed last season’s total.
Manager Ned Yost, who stuck with Moustakas even when that was difficult to do, called his teammates together Friday to announce he was an All-Star. Then Moustakas told the media that Yost and Moore have made him feel at ease about going home, and they had reassured him during the dark days of his demotion to Omaha, even when he doubted himself.
It makes you wonder what would have happened without the journey to the minors.
“It just revitalized my love for the game, [and] made me remember how much I love playing baseball, especially in the big leagues,” he told reporters Friday.
Moustakas has been a completely different hitter this season. He showed up in spring training smashing line drives to left field. Since he had been described by some as “a career disappointment at the plate” and an “extreme pull guy,” this was beyond notable.
Yost, who has certainly heard his share of criticism from Kansas City fans, decided to move Moustakas into the No. 2 hole of the Royals’ batting order for the season opener. And this was the guy fans begged Yost to pinch-hit for so many times early in 2014.
Moustakas had been such an extreme pull hitter that he constantly saw shifts employed against him and the ground outs into those shifts just added to his frustration. But against Jeff Samardzija of the White Sox in the season opener, Moose homered, on an elevated fastball, and hit an opposite-field home run.
It was the first opposite-field home run of his career. Think about that.
Moustakas hasn’t stopped. Break down his first 87 hits this season and he has pulled the ball to right 25 times. But 62 hits – 42 to center and 20 to left – go completely against the spray chart of his history. In 2014, he went to right 49 times, center 37 times and left just 11 times.
Long-time Royals scout Art Stewart told Lee Judge of The Star he has never seen anything like it. Moose became a completely different hitter over one winter.
“Better late than never,” said Moustakas, who used to stand in front of his locker and answer endless questions about when he was going to start hitting.
He has been in a little slump lately. Given his mother’s condition, which is obviously serious, that is easy to understand. For all those who think Brian Dozier of the Twins or Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox deserved the final vote more, remember that this feel-good story is about a player who has totally changed his game while constantly turning his thoughts to home.
Don’t begrudge Moustakas.
His mother, Connie, had told him “go back to work.” So when the news came that he was an All-Star he had to call home before anything else.
“They were just laughing, crying, having a bunch of hugs with each other,” he said. “I know I made my mom proud.”
It’s obvious that is important to the first-time All-Star. And he is batting 1.000 when it comes to perspective.
“For the longest I can remember, I don’t think she’s ever missed a game,” he said. “She took me to every practice, took me everywhere … Baseball, football, basketball, whatever it was, she was always there, always cheering, always letting the umpires know that she thought it was a ball or a strike. You could always find my mom.
“When I’m hanging out with my mom, all that other stuff doesn’t really matter to me.”
In the first inning Saturday against the Blue Jays, the All-Star bunted in his first at-bat and moved up a runner to help produce Kansas City’s first run. The Royals lost 6-2 and Moustakas went hitless but his teammates high-fived his unselfish return to the dugout.
He is headed to Cincinnati for Tuesday’s All-Star game with so many of his teammates. It’s something special.
Once again, time is measured differently in baseball.
“Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young,” Angell once wrote.
Just call the next few days Moose Time. And imagine how much it means to him.