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Mike Moustakas is trying to beat the shift

In addition to trying a new position, Moose is working on a new approach at the plate this spring.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers-Media Day Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Moustakas was serviceable at the plate last year, but his production did take a step back from his previous seasons. After posting solid, if unspectacular, wRC+ marks of 123, 111, and 114 from 2015-2017, the veteran infielder finished 2018 with a 105 wRC+. That’s only five percent better than league average and was tied with Eric Thames and Ryan Braun. That’s perfectly acceptable, but it was perhaps a bit underwhelming given the numbers he’s put up in the past.

A big reason for the drop in production was infield shifting. In this analytically-dominated age of baseball, front offices have gotten smarter than ever when it comes to positioning their defenders. Nearly all left-handed hitters will encounter a shift on a regular basis, and Moustakas was one of the many victims. Per Baseball Savant, opposing teams shifted against him in 53.4% of his plate appearances last season, and the 324 shifts he faced were the most he’s ever seen in a single season. The results were quite drastic: Moustakas struggled to a mere .289 wOBA against the shift, compared to a fantastic .379 mark against a more traditional defense.

Moustakas was recently interviewed by MLB Network’s Kevin Millar as part of their “30 Clubs in 30 Days” series. He revealed that in addition to getting accustomed to second base, he’s also trying to make some adjustments at the plate. Moustakas talked about the impact of shifts in today’s game and emphasized that he’s trying to counter the shift by using the opposite field more frequently.

Right now, with all the shifts in baseball nowadays, [I’m] working on driving the ball to left field. Getting those singles in tough counts against tough pitchers, working on using that left side of diamond a lot, and staying consistent with the work that way.

Moustakas also offered some thoughts on bunting against the shift, pointing out that it’s not as easy as some might assume.

[I] work on bunting, but the third baseman is still right there. With the shift, you’ve got three guys on the right and then the third baseman still plays up, so it takes a bunt away most of the time. Bunting’s also not that easy. Getting a bunt down is hard against 95 with sink or run.

Moustakas has always been a pull-heavy hitter throughout his career, which is typically the case for left-handed sluggers. He has pulled the ball 44% of the time while going opposite field only half as often (23.3%). Opposing teams have taken notice of this, and by adjusting their positioning accordingly, they have turned what used to be hits into routine plays that send Moustakas walking back to the dugout.

A chart displaying where infielders were positioned against Moustakas in 2018. He typically saw the traditional lefty shift that features the second baseman in short right field.
Baseball Savant

If Moustakas can hit the ball to left field more frequently, it would likely lessen the negative effect shifting has on him and boost his overall numbers.

Going to left field is easier said than done, and it will be interesting to see if Moustakas can successfully make the adjustment. His bloop double down the left field line on Tuesday afternoon was a start, although one plate appearance is never conclusive evidence.

Spring training is a time to prepare for the regular season and make adjustments if necessary. Chase Anderson is overhauling his windup. Ryan Braun is tweaking his swing to increase his launch angle. Junior Guerra and Jhoulys Chacin are adding changeups to their repertoire. Now Moustakas has set a goal to use the opposite field more often to beat the shift. His new approach will be something to monitor throughout the season. If he can pull it off, he could improve from a roughly league-average hitter to a more potent threat in the middle of the lineup. That would be an even bigger boost to the Brewers’ already-stacked offense, and it would make the defensive risk of using Moustakas at second base more palatable.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.