Mike Moustakas shifted his game to beat the shift

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- In the first inning Wednesday, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas steps in against Cubs righty John Lackey and laces a single up the right-field line. "MOOOOOOOOOSE," chant the happy thousands. Third inning, second at-bat, Moose steps in again ... and slaps a single to left-center past the shortstop. And again, Royals fans go nuts.

Because, like everybody in baseball, they're getting used to something new: The new Mike Moustakas. The man called Moose has given the game something to think about: In an age when scoring is way down, when technology favors the pitcher between the information it provides and the defensive positioning it enables, a guy with a bat and a plan can beat you.

In 2010, the 30 major league teams shifted a total of 2,464 times. By 2014, that number had gone up more than 500 percent, to 13,298. If the book was out that a player is a pull hitter, odds are he's going to face a defensive shift. Moustakas was a pull hitter facing a lot of shifts -- as Ben Lindbergh wrote last year, teams were shifting on him 70.7 percent of the time. He'd talked about changing his game to adjust, but in 2014, he didn't deliver, finishing with a .212 average and also earning a brief mid-season demotion to Triple-A Omaha.

Royals manager Ned Yost said, "2014 was when they really started shifting him, and it kinda just blew his mind. And then he got into the mindset of, 'I'm going to beat this,' and hit his head against a wall."

So the book was out on Moustakas. Pull hitter, a guy you could get the better of. He knew it, and he knew he had to do something about it. He had a hint of what was possible after he got red-hot during the Royals' 2014 postseason run, hitting five home runs -- but also getting things going with a bunt single against the shift in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Angels.

"I knew I was a better hitter than .212," Moustakas said. "I really couldn't go back out there and hit .212 again, I couldn't let that happen. And I was so stubborn, coming up in the minor leagues, all I wanted to do was pull the ball. And pulling the ball got me sent down to Triple-A."

They say the first step is recognizing you need help. Moustakas went out and got it, starting with a tough conversation with hitting coach Dale Sveum about how to really become a hitter who could adapt and win within the game of adjustments that defines success or failure for every player.

"I went up to Dale and said, 'what do I need to do to stick around a lot longer? Because I love playing in the big leagues,' " Moustakas said. "And Dale was like, 'this is what we gotta do.' And I bought in from the first day."

The simple answer? Moustakas was going to have to show opponents that he could hit the ball to the opposite field. It might sound easy; it isn't. Remember what Moustakas was trying to do: In effect, trying to change everything he knew about how to succeed at the plate, learned from his earliest experiences in thousands upon thousands of at-bats all the way from T-ball through Triple-A, adjusting his swing path within his at-bats, and doing something he hadn't really done before. Against the highest level of competition. And making it work.

"It's very, very hard to do," Yost said. "I tried to do it when I was a player, and I couldn't do it. I was a dead pull hitter, and I couldn't do it."

"It's hard, and at this level you really don't know until you sell out and try it," first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Ever the problem-solver, Sveum observed. "It's basically turning a switch. You've got to get that part of your brain working, and he did it and did it really well. It's asking, 'how can we reprogram something,' and he committed all year and all spring training last year, every single batting practice, never tried to pull a ball, and had a great spring training that way."

"He's got the brains and the talent. But he's also got tremendous drive, which at times in his career has hurt him. At times, he would press," Yost said. "He went in to the winter last year and he said, 'Look, I'm not going to let this shift beat me.' He came back to spring training the next year and was driving ball the other way, and it's nice to see it in BP, but can you translate that into the game? And right there, from Day 1, boom, he brought it into the game."

"The biggest thing was his commitment to do it. He had the swing to do it, he had the swing and the approach to be able to do it, but then there was his commitment to do it," Sveum said. "He's got great hand-eye coordination, if it's anywhere near the zone, he usually puts the bat on it, foul-ball it, good breaking-ball hitter. Bat stays in the zone pretty long, to be a good breaking-ball hitter."

It wasn't just a matter of going the other way as a matter of process, but of trying to hit the ball there with authority. It's one thing to dink the ball to the opposite field, but the focus here was on really barreling the ball to make Moustakas not just a guy who could beat a shift, but a hitter with better command of the plate.

"Dale really got me going, to focus on driving the ball to the opposite field, not just trying to hit ground balls that way," Moustakas said. "That really stuck in my mind and I was able to do some damage on the left side of the field."

When the 2015 season started, Moustakas did damage, and delivered on what he'd worked on, hitting .297/.353/.427 through the All-Star break. Keep in mind, his previous career line was .236/.290/.379. A skeptic would suggest it was a function of his batting average in balls in play, that he'd regress to his mean, and all the other safe assumptions born of big samples. True to his commitment, Moustakas was spraying the ball to all fields, not just bunting to beat the shift. On his career through 2014, he'd hit just 23.4 percent of his balls in play to left, hitting just .189 and slugging .226. Now he was going that way 33.3 percent of the time, hitting .382 and slugging .483. And where he'd hit .252 against the shift before, at the break he'd been beating it at a .341 clip.

"It was kind of like a chess match," Moustakas said. "I'd get up there and be like a quarterback and read the defense, and see where everyone was at, and then I'd base my at-bat, base my plan on where they were at. It was fun, a game within the game. I'd see where everyone was at, and approach each at-bat differently if they were shifting or not. I was able to get guys back on the other side of the diamond."

Hosmer added, "I think it started out with beating the shift and just doing it to get rid of the shift, and he just became so accustomed to it and so good at it that, even when they weren't shifting on him, they still saw him going the other way. I think as a result of that approach, I think he started hitting breaking balls a lot better too."

The trenches the game is played in are constantly redefined by adjustments. True fact: Human beings are great at pattern recognition. Pitchers saw what Moustakas was doing, and tried to adjust ... which only brought them back to playing into his game, giving him something he could pull and power into the right-field corner. In the second half of the 2015 season, his power stroke came back, as he belted 15 home runs and hit .269/.341/.522. He was pulling the ball more (42.9 percent of the time), but he also kept beating people when he had to roll over and go the opposite way, hitting .320 to left after the All-Star break.

"I was able to start pulling the baseball again, which has been my strength my entire career," Moustakas said. "If I fell back into a pattern and as pulling too much, they started shifting on me, and then I was able to go back to left field and get my hits again."

Changing his game had given Moustakas the power to get back to playing his game. The payoff for going the other way was getting to play his way, while also making him a better hitter.

"It's a maturing process as a hitter," Yost said with a smile. "He's always had tremendous ability offensively, but when you reach the big leagues, it's a different place, man, you're playing against the best in the world. People are going to make adjustments to you. And it's up to you to adjust back, and the smart ones do. The ones that aren't so smart and stay hard-headed are the ones who never really achieve everything they're capable of achieving. He was one of the smart ones. He said, 'I need to make an adjustment, and I'm going to go do it."

So enjoy the new Moose, folks. At times he'll look like the old Moose, slamming balls into the right-field corner. And sometimes he'll scan the field and drop the ball into left too. He's the veteran of learned experience of those thousands upon thousands of at-bats, but now that's blended with a readiness to adapt and adjust. Most of all, these days Moustakas is a man with a bat and a plan, and from pole to pole he is going to beat you.