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The impact of Mike Moustakas playing second base

The Brewers are taking a gamble by playing a career third baseman at the keystone. It just might be worth it.

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MLB: Spring Training-San Diego Padres at Milwaukee Brewers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official. Mike Moustakas is a second baseman.

Or, at least, he’s going to be playing there. Moustakas isn’t actually a second baseman. He’s a third baseman, but he’s going to be manning the keystone on an everyday basis for the Brewers this season. This is in spite of the fact that Moustakas entered camp with one professional game there under his belt—if you think a six-inning trial run in a 2014 spring training game counts.

Moustakas’ lack of experience at the position raises the obvious question of how well he’ll fare defensively over a full season there. Furthermore, is that defensive risk worth it? Will Moustakas actually be a net gain for the Brewers at second?

Moustakas has apparently adjusted well enough to his new position this spring. After all, Craig Counsell chose to officially anoint him as the everyday second baseman on Monday, when there was nearly three weeks left of Cactus League action. Moustakas has drawn positive reviews from Counsell and fellow infielder Travis Shaw in Brewers camp.

The man himself has stated that he feels comfortable at the position.

Moustakas is by no means a butcher in the field, so he should be able to capably handle anything hit to him at second. The real question is his range. Counsell admitted that the Brewers are not expecting Moustakas to have the range of a great defensive second baseman. Rather, they believe his natural baseball instincts will help the transition.

Fortunately, the Brewers are on the cutting edge when it comes to infield shifting. Milwaukee held opposing hitters to a .281 wOBA against the shift last year, and Sports Info Solutions’ newest defensive stat credited the Brewers with 24 Defensive Runs Saved on shifts, which ranked second in the National League and sixth in Major League Baseball overall. The organization’s analytic team does their homework, and the coaching staff uses the data to put their defenders in the best position to make plays. This should help mitigate Moustakas’ lack of range at second base.

DRS for individual players does not account for shifting, but having defenders in the right spots allows them to make plays than they wouldn’t otherwise, which helps their metrics. Perhaps the most recent example of this was renowned ankle-kicker Manny Machado. Machado began the season in Baltimore, where he graded out horrifically at shortstop. He posted an ugly -18 DRS before being dealt to Los Angeles. The analytically-minded Dodgers adjusted his positioning, and Machado’s defensive metrics made a complete turnaround. He racked up +5 DRS with his new team, and he did it in spite of playing roughly half as many innings as he did with the Orioles.’s Andrew Simon explained how defensive positioning may have prompted that improvement:

The most dramatic difference likely would show up in Machado’s positioning on a pitch-by-pitch basis, something that could be dictated by factors including the batter, pitcher, baserunners, count and game situation. But even Machado’s overall positioning could provide some clues. For example, with the Dodgers, his average starting spot against left-handed batters was a foot shallower and three degrees (roughly a few feet) closer to second base than it had been with the Orioles, according to Statcast™ data. That might have made it easier for Machado to reach certain batted balls, thereby improving his range score.

Granted, defensive metrics really don’t mean much, if anything at all, in such a small sample. Machado’s defense did not actually improve by 23 runs. However, the magnitude of that leap indicates that something changed. The Dodgers did a better job of positioning him, and it appears to have made a difference.

The Brewers are likely figuring that they can do something similar with Moustakas, but to an even greater extent. The Brewers shift even more frequently than the Dodgers do; Milwaukee shifted 23% of the time last season, while Los Angeles did 21.4% of the time. By putting Moustakas in the right spots on the diamond, they can help his lack of range affect him less.

The key to this strategy is Orlando Arcia. It may say in the box score that he’s the shortstop, but in reality, the Brewers utilize him as a rover who plays wherever a given hitter is most likely to hit the ball. Arcia is tasked with making the difficult plays that require plenty of range, while Moustakas, Shaw, and Jesus Aguilar are positioned with the idea that they won’t have to move too much to field the balls hit toward them.

With that said, shifts cannot and never will work 100% of the time. They’re not a magic spell that can turn anyone into a great defender at any position. There will be batted balls that a normal second baseman typically gets to but will get past Moustakas. This is especially likely if he’s going to play there on an everyday basis for a full season. The Brewers made it work with Travis Shaw last season, but that was for 48 games. Moustakas could very well play three times as many games at second as Shaw did. That means more batted balls hit in his direction and, therefore, more batted balls that could get past him. Even with the benefit of shifting, it’s going to hurt at times, and there may even be a fair amount of pretty ugly-looking plays. However, it does remove a good chunk of the concern about Moustakas changing positions.

It’s somewhat reassuring that Moustakas has generally graded out just fine at third base. He owns a career +9 DRS at the hot corner. He’s had one excellent season (+14 in 2012) and one exceptionally poor one (-8 in 2017). Aside from those two campaigns, Moustakas’ defensive ratings have ranged from slightly above average to slightly below. How exactly that translates to second base remains to be seen, but it is good to know that Moustakas is already competent at his natural position.

Finally, we have the good old eye test. Unless you’re a professional scout, the eye test is not a very reliable way to evaluate defense. We don’t see or remember every play, and often times we may remember certain plays more than others depending on what our existing bias is toward a player.

Moustakas hasn’t been tested with any particularly challenging plays this spring. The closest thing we have to that is two clips from the 2018 NLCS. Moustakas was positioned in the general area where a second baseman would play when he made these diving snags.

These plays show that Moustakas is not a statue. He can make some nice diving grabs if he needs to, and he’s actually more athletic than he looks. Again, it’s impossible to draw too many definitive conclusions from two plays, but they do provide something of a preview of how Moustakas could look at second base.

Taking all of this information into account, we can say that Moustakas will be a below-average defender at second base, and there will be bumps along the way. He’s going to be a downgrade from Jonathan Villar, who spent much of last season at second base and has a career +7 DRS at the position. However, Moustakas is not going to single-handedly sink the team with his glove at the keystone. Based on the comments from himself and Counsell, footwork around the bag and general awareness shouldn’t be much of an issue. Rather, the question is his range, but that’s something that the Brewers can work around better than most teams.

That’s the defensive impact. Now let’s talk about what Moustakas brings offensively at second base.

Moustakas is a good hitter, but not a great one. While there’s plenty of power in his bat, he doesn’t draw many walks, so his on-base percentage leaves something to be desired. As a left-handed pull hitter, he has been a victim of the shift. Put it all together, and you have a player who hit for a 105 wRC+ and .774 OPS last season, numbers that make him quite similar to Ryan Braun and Eric Thames. Moustakas did have a great 2015 campaign, when he posted a career-best 123 wRC+. Since then, however, he owns a 109 wRC+ and .804 OPS. That’s nice, but it doesn’t jump off the page by any means.

However, this isn’t just about how good his bat is overall. It’s about how good it is compared to other players at his new position, as well as how good it is compared to what the Brewers had last season. Moustakas’ 105 wRC+ from last year would’ve ranked ninth among 21 qualified players at the keystone. Second basemen as a whole produced a 93 wRC+ last year. Brewer second basemen were particularly bad. Like, really bad. They limped to a cumulative 68 wRC+, which was second-last among all teams. That’s including Travis Shaw’s strong 124 wRC+ after he shifted to second base down the stretch. Even if Moustakas’ production winds up being much closer to what it was last season, that’s still a substantial upgrade at the plate.

Moustakas’ bat actually plays much better as a second baseman. Third baseman across baseball combined for a 102 wRC+ last season. While Moustakas was about 12% better offensively than the average second baseman last year, he was only 3% better than the average third baseman.

There’s even more goods news. While Moustakas’ numbers from last season were perfectly acceptable, there are reasons to believe that he could improve this season. First of all, Moustakas has set a goal to fight back against infield shifts that are deployed against him. Using the opposite field more and avoiding the shift could help his numbers.

However, going opposite field against tough Major League pitching is easier said than done, so there’s a very real possibility that Moustakas can’t successfully make the adjustment. The biggest reason for optimism is his offensive potential at Miller Park. Moustakas has played the majority of his home games at Kauffman Stadium, which is one of the worst parks in baseball for lefty sluggers. In 2017, its home run factor for lefties was 93, which was among the bottom five in the game. Remarkably, Moustakas still belted 38 long balls that season. Imagine what he could do in Miller Park, which has a 111 home run factor for lefties.

Here is Moustakas’ 2018 spray chart for home games with Miller Park replacing Kauffman Stadium as his home venue. He gains quite a few additional homers with the switch.
Baseball Savant

Moustakas may not have reaped these benefits after coming to Milwaukee during the middle of last season (his SLG and ISO both dropped after the trade), but he still has 40-homer potential now that he’ll play half of his games there. If he can replicate his .835 OPS, 114 wRC+, 121 DRC+, and 38 bombs from his 2017 season, the Brewers will be getting a truly incredible offensive upgrade over what they had last season. If that version of Moustakas shows up, his defense will be merely an afterthought.

The Brewers are definitely taking a risk by moving Moustakas to second base. However, between what we’ve heard from camp about his transition and the effect of proper positioning, there’s a fairly good chance that Moustakas won’t be much worse than simply below-average defensively. When you combine that with a bat that’s significantly better than the league-average second baseman—even in a down season—it’s a net gain.

I was not thrilled when Moustakas returned because of the seemingly unclean fit, and I still believe that signing a player like Jed Lowrie would have been a better course of action for upgrading second base. Lowrie has been a better hitter in each of the past two seasons, and he’s likely better with the glove as well.

However, I’m ready to admit that I’ve been selling Moustakas short. There’s some significant upside here if he can successfully pull off the transition to second. It’s still an unorthodox and largely unprecedented move, but it’s one that just might work masterfully.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant