The Milwaukee Brewers have fielded a better-than-average offense so far in 2019, entering today’s off-day ranked at #14 in the league with an average of 4.88 runs per game. The home run ball has once again been the strength of the lineup as the team is sitting at #4 in baseball with a combined 78 home runs. They also rank in the upper third in on-base percentage and slugging percentage (and, as one would expect, OPS), helping overcome some early issues with the pitching staff on the way to a 28-21 record — 1.5 games back of the Cubs — here on May 20th.
But as was the case for much of the 2018, the story of Milwaukee’s offense has so far been a case of ‘stars and scrubs,’ at least when it comes to the production of the names involved. Only four of Milwaukee’s regular players have been better-than-average offensively in terms of wRC+, led, of course, by the exploits of Christian Yelich (194 wRC+) and his quest to defend his title of Most Valuable Player. Yasmani Grandal (117 wRC+) and Ryan Braun (118 wRC+) are chipping in well, but the team’s second-best hitter to this point is a player who didn’t even sign a contract until after Spring Training had started and who has spent most of him time playing at a completely new defensive position.
Where would the Cream City Nine be without Mike Moustakas?
It wasn’t the cleanest fit to bring back Moose and move him and his 6’0”, 225 lb frame to the middle infield, but the veteran was open about his desire to return to Milwaukee and both the players in the clubhouse and executives in the front office wanted him to come back. So the parties involved decided that a move to second base was how they could make it work, and so Moustakas inked a one-year deal (with a mutual option) that guarantees him $10 mil this season.
Fangraphs’ calculations believes that Moustakas has already generated more than enough value ($10.1 mil) with his play on the field in 43 games to justify the expenditure made by David Stearns and company. There were some early growing pains but he’s acquitted himself about as well as could be hoped as second base; Moose has been charged with only one error at the keystone so far, and his -1 DRS and -0.4 UZR are totals that are hardly killing the team defensively.
Make no mistake about it though, Moustakas’ greatest value has come from his potent left-handed bat. In 185 plate appearances the southpaw slugger has hit .256/.324/.524 while mashing 11 dingers, good for a 122 wRC+. He’s currently pacing for his best-ever OPS and the second-highest wRC+ of his career, nearly a 20% improvement over his level of production with the club down the stretch last season after he was acquired via trade from the Royals. Entering play today, Moustakas could accurately make the claim that he was the National League’s best offensive second baseman (#1 by wRC+).
There isn’t really anything in terms of approach that Moustakas is doing too differently in order to drive his improvement this season, either. His swing rate at pitches out of the strike zone (31.3%) is down a bit from recent seasons and more closely mirrors the earlier years of his career, and it’s the same case with his overall swing rate (48.5%). His swinging strike rate (11.3%) would be the highest rate of his career and he’s punching out a bit more than he typically has, but his 18.9% K-rate is still well below the league-average. Moose walked between 7%-8% of the time in four of the five seasons before this one, and his current 8.1% BB rate jives perfectly with that.
Moustakas talked about going to the opposite field more often during Spring Training and that has played out so far as his 29.3% oppo-rate is the second-highest it has ever been and more than six points better than his all-time batted ball total. That has made a difference when it comes to his batting average against the shift this season (.277) versus his career average (.259), but his overall BABIP of .262 is basically right where it’s always been. In that same vein, he’s hitting more line drives than ever (22.9%) and his fewest grounders (32.1%), but his fly ball rate (45%) is essentially at his career average. Moustakas is hitting left-handed pitchers well (106 wRC+) but he doesn’t typically struggle with platoon splits like many of his lefty-hitting brethren.
When you get down to it, what is really driving Mike’s offensive success this season is a boost in his power numbers. Plus raw power has always been Moustakas’ calling card as a hitter, and this season he has been bashing baseballs better than ever. His .524 slugging percentage would be a new all-time high, as would his .268 Isolated Power mark. 23 of his 43 hits — 53.5% — of his hits have gone for extra bases.
This is more than just Moustakas finally receiving the offensive boost that left-handed batters usually enjoy upon moving to Miller Park. It is true that his home slash has improved since last season, currently reading .256/.333/.538. But he’s also hitting .256/.316/.511 on the road, and he has actually hit more homers away from the Menomonee River Valley (6) than he has in the friendly confines of his home stadium.
Simply put, Moustakas is making hard contact with the ball more regularly than he ever has before. He’s boasting a career-high 42.1% hard contact rate this season, and his 11.3% barrel rate as measured by Statcast is nearly three points better than his career total and close to double the MLB average. His average batted ball is traveling 202 feet, which ranks among the top 11% of the 379 batters with at least 25 batted ball events in 2019 and is a 14 foot improvement over his average in 2018.
Moustakas was a late-bloomer at the MLB level, not breaking out with the bat until his fifth big league season at age 26. He has since thrived with a high-contact, fly ball-centric approach at the plate that accentuates his light-tower power and it appears that he may be taking his offensive game to new heights now in his age-30 season, driving the ball with greater frequency and more authority than ever before. The acute struggles of Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar this season have made Moustakas an even more indispensable part of Milwaukee’s lineup. Now that Shaw’s injury has allowed him to move back to his natural position at the hot corner for the time being, perhaps that added layer of comfort will help Mike Moustakas be even better.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Savant