With ground balls in decline, Brewers trust Mike Moustakas at second | MLB
PHOENIX — Mike Moustakas has played 8,070 defensive innings in his major league career, and an additional 3,057 in the minors. He’s not spent a single moment as his team’s second baseman in the regular season, but that will soon change.
On Monday afternoon in his office at Milwaukee’s spring training facility in Maryvale, Brewers manager Craig Counsell made it official: Moustakas will be his club’s starting second baseman this season. It’s not a surprise, of course. That was the intention when the Brewers brought the man known best as Moose back to Milwaukee on a one-year free-agent deal, and it’s not like the career third baseman had done anything this spring to show he wasn’t capable of making the switch to second base.
“He’s handled the game action flawlessly,” Counsell said.
Moustakas hasn’t done much of anything with the glove during spring games, actually. He’s played 40 innings at second this spring, and the ball’s been hit to him only 14 times. He’s made three putouts and has 11 assists so far this spring. In four innings Monday, a couple of hours after he was officially named the starter, he didn’t have a single defensive opportunity.
And then there’s this nugget: He has yet to see a double-play opportunity this spring. Think about that. Milwaukee’s starting second baseman on Opening Day has, with about two weeks left in spring, never attempted to turn a competitive double play as a second baseman.
And please don’t take this as any sort of criticism of Moustakas or Milwaukee’s defensive vetting process. It’s far from that. Counsell made the observation that Moustakas’ lack of opportunities at second this spring are more of a reflection of the state of the game than anything else.
So we decided to dig a little deeper.
As you surely know, strikeout numbers have soared in recent years. MLB batters struck out a record 41,207 times last season — the record was only 29,937 heading into 1998, as a point of comparison — and for the first time major league history in 2018 there were more strikeouts than hits. Home runs are up lately, too. Three of the four highest season home run totals have come in the past three years.
So with those two “true outcomes” (walks being the third “true outcome”) skyrocketing, the number of chances for a second baseman such as Moustakas are dwindling. The days of just trying to make contact and hit the ball on the ground are, for the most part, long gone.
“That goes into the equation,” Counsell said. “The ball’s not being put into play a ton. It’s just not.”
Let’s take a look at the numbers. Here are the average chances for a second baseman per nine innings by decade going back to 1968.
That 4.29 number is easily the lowest in MLB history. And it might not seem like a huge drop at first glance — on average, second basemen saw roughly one fewer fielding chance per game in 2018 compared with 1988 — but that’s a significant percentage drop. Second basemen last year saw 18.6 percent fewer chances than 30 years ago.
Another way to look at this: In 1998, Fernando Vina led MLB second basemen with 5.75 chances per nine innings and 884 total chances in 1,382 2/3 innings. In 2018, Scooter Gennett led MLB second basemen (with at least 1,000 innings at the position) with 4.95 chances per nine innings and 665 total chances in 1,210 innings.
It’s the same thing for shortstops. They’re seeing fewer chances per nine innings than at any point in MLB history.
So Milwaukee’s vetting process on Moustakas has had more to do with what they know of him and what they’ve seen on the practice field than what has happened in games thus far.
“He’s got very good feet. He’s got very good hands. He’s not going to have high-end range,” Counsell said. “But he’s got very good feet and very good hands, and that can accomplish a lot. And he’s very instinctual as a player.”
But the lack of spring opportunities?
“There are,” Counsell admitted, “going to be things that’ll happen during the season that happen to him for the first time.”
But only 4.29 (or fewer) chances for something new to happen to him for the first time during the season, which is less concerning than the 5.27 chances that would have been coming his way in 1988.