Mike Moustakas’ off-season makeover included shedding about 10 pounds, a new coiffure — short on the sides — and a wedding, to Stephanie.
The reshaping extended to the ball field, specifically the batter’s box.
Moustakas, the Royals’ third baseman, spent nearly a month in Venezuela, trading his blue for the red of Cardenales de Lara in Barquisimeto. He worked to regain a hitting stroke that produced 20 home runs in 2012.
Last year, his numbers dropped to 12 homers and a .233 average, nine points lower than the previous season, and Moustakas vowed to make changes.
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“I didn’t play as well as I had hoped,” Moustakas said. “But it was a successful for us as a team. If I had played better earlier in the year, maybe we could have done something a little different.”
Like earn a playoff spot. Moustakas was one of several Royals who struggled mightily in the team’s disastrous May and spent the rest of the season battling back.
But for Moose, the quest to improve started almost immediately after the Royals posted their 86-76 record.
In Venezuela, he worked with Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol, the team’s manager. They’d leave the hotel every day around noon for the ballpark, where Moustakas would take some 300 pre-game swings with the primary purpose of stamping out the dead-pull in his swing.
“That’s where I got into trouble last year, trying to pull everything,” Moustakas said. “Pedro told me that’s not going to work. We’re going to work the middle of the field, do damage up the middle.”
The idea wasn’t to eliminate pulling the ball for Moustakas, a left-handed hitter, but only on pitches over the inside third of the plate.
Last season, almost half of Moustakas’ hits, 53 of 110, were pulled. The mind-set was to always aim at right field, which was the wrong approach.
“When I tried to pull it, my hips flew open, my shoulders flew, my head flew, and I had no chance of making contact,” Moustakas said.
Every day, Moustakas and Grifol worked on hitting through the middle, which also opened the opposite side. Moustakas said the going was rough for the first week.
“I wasn’t trusting the process, and I was going back to my old ways,” he said.
Then, just like that, things clicked. Two of his three home runs flew over the center-field wall. He knocked doubles to left center.
In 17 games, Moustakas hit .288 with three home runs and six doubles. A career .222 hitter against lefties, he hit .259 against southpaws, and he saw plenty of them.
“After like the third inning, all they did was bring in lefties,” Moustakas said. “They have 15, 18 in the bullpen. As soon as he’s brought in, there’s a lefty and righty throwing in the bullpen.”
Moose had a blast. Crowds of 5,000 sounded like 20,000. A first-inning single was cheered like a game-winning home run, and any homer emptied the dugout for a home-plate celebration.
“And the guys treated me like I had been on the team for 10 years,” Moustakas said.
Now, it’s a matter of taking the lessons of Venezuela and applying them to major-league pitching. Before attending the Royals’ FanFest this weekend, Moustakas had been in Arizona, continuing his work with Grifol. They’re headed back on Monday for more cage time.
“It’s something we’re going to keep working on,” Moustakas said. “Pedro has me dialed in and I’m excited to keep working with him, I feel like I’m a step ahead and now I want to work this approach against major-league pitching.”