Chone Figgins. Alberto Callaspo. David Freese. Yunel Escobar. These are the names of a few of the players who have manned third base for the Angels over the last decade or so. High-level production at the hot corner has eluded the Angels since the homegrown Troy Glaus’ career fizzled out in the early part of the century.
Multiple players who we were led to believe would put an end to the eternal nightmare have come along since then. Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Kaleb Cowart, and even Kyle Kubitza have been lucky enough to don the title of “future Angels third baseman” throughout the years. But none of them ever worked out, and the Angels have been left relying on a different unremarkable veteran third baseman to fill in every few years.
There is a player on this year’s free-agent market, however, who could solve this recurring dilemma, and his name is Mike Moustakas.
Moustakas was the Royals’ second overall draft choice in 2007, and his career was setting up to be a disappointment initially. He made a name for himself in the 2014 postseason, though, slugging five home runs to help lead Kansas City to the American League pennant. You may remember him as the guy who took Fernando Salas deep to win the first game of the ALDS in Anaheim (Too soon? Sorry.).
He then turned that hot-hitting postseason into a breakout campaign in 2015. Moustakas accumulated 3.7 Wins Above Replacement, hit .284/.348/.470 (123 wRC+, where 100 is average) with 22 homers, and earned his first career All-Star selection.
Moustakas spent most of the following season recovering from a torn ACL, but he returned in 2017 with a newfound power stroke, nearly doubling his 2015 home run total with 38 big flies. The power surge was paired with a severe reduction in on-base ability, however.
While his slugging percentage shot up from .470 two years prior to .521 in 2017, his on-base percentage dropped from .348, third-best among AL third basemen, to .314, third-worst of the same group. Still, the power was enough to make his 114 wRC+ comfortably above average and better than all but three AL third basemen.
Last winter, Moustakas and the Angels appeared to be destined for each other. He went to high school in Southern California, just a couple hours away from Angel Stadium. He plays third and was set to be a free agent at the same time that the Angels incumbent, Escobar, would become one. He hits left-handed, and the Angels’ lineup consists mostly of right-handed hitters.
Now, a year later, there’s a Moustakas-sized hole on the left side of the Angels’ infield, and Moustakas is sitting there waiting to fill it. However, the general consensus about him among Angels fans seems to have shifted, and the team hasn’t been connected to the infielder in any meaningful way this offseason. When much of the Halos Heaven staff played GM last month, and none of us, including myself, penciled in a Moustakas signing as part of our ideal offseason, I began to reconsider the thought.
First, it’s important to note how large the Angels’ need at third base is. Angels third basemen—a mix of Escobar, Cowart, Luis Valbuena, and others—hit .235/.313/.411 in 2017. That line was good for a 96 wRC+, which placed the Angels 21st at the position.
The club’s third basemen have posted a wRC+ between 79 and 100 each of the last six years, and the last time the Angels received above-average offensive production from third base was in 2011 when they sported a still unimpressive 104 wRC+.
The offensive impact Moustakas would have on the Angels is undeniable, but it’s his evolving skill set that has been the target of criticism. You could argue that Moustakas’ power is less valuable now than ever due to the record rate at which the ball is flying out of the park at the moment. You might ask, “Why pay a premium for power when it’s so easy to come by right now?” And I’d normally agree with you. Not in this case, though.
As of this year, the average everyday player has 20-homer power. What the average everyday player doesn’t have, however, is 38-homer power. 117 players hit at least 20 home runs this season, but just 19 hit 35 or more. And a move away from Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, which is the fourth-most difficult park to hit a home run in, could have Moustakas routinely eclipsing the 40-homer mark.
Moustakas isn’t just a power hitter now. He’s one of the game’s best power hitters, and he’s doing it with an exceedingly rare ability to consistently put the bat on the ball.
Yes, the left-handed hitter swung and missed more this season than he ever has; his swinging strike rate increased to a career-high 10.5% while he upped his strikeout rate to a career-high 15.7%, and both numbers are more than three percent higher than they were in 2015.
But his swinging strike rate was exactly average, and his strikeout rate was still well below the league average of 21.6%. Furthermore, his 94 punch outs were the fifth-fewest among players who hit at least 30 home runs. The increased swing-and-miss tendency shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a side effect of adding power and is not something to worry about.
The biggest downside with Moustakas is his subpar athleticism. He doesn’t run well; his sprint speed ranked 413th out 451 players this year, per Statcast. His baserunning itself rates poorly as well, as he was 10th-least valuable qualified player on the bases in 2017, per FanGraphs.
Those numbers were relatively steady compared to previous years, but his defense took a noticeable hit. He was slightly above average in the field before 2017, combining for five Defensive Runs Saved and a 4.0 Ultimate Zone Rating in 2015 and 2016. This year, however, he piled up -8 DRS and a -3.1 UZR, which were third and fourth-worst among third basemen, respectively.
A positional adjustment makes his defense look a bit better, as he ranked 80th out of 131 qualified fielders by Defensive Runs Above Average. That’s still not good, but it is passable at a corner infield position. And at least part of his defensive decline can be attributed to possible lingering effects of his 2016 ACL injury. As he gets farther removed from that and becomes more comfortable on his surgically-repaired knee, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his fielding abilities rebound.
But to his detractors focusing on Moustakas’ lack of athleticism, I say: So what if he’s not perfect? The Angels aren’t in a position to wait around for the perfect third baseman to show up. Realistically, they are not going to end up with Manny Machado next winter and outside of the future $300-million man, free-agent options are scarce both this offseason and next. There is not currently a potential solution in the farm system, either, nor do the Angels possess the expendable assets that would be required to pull off a trade for a player of Moustakas’ caliber.
At 29 years old, Moustakas is one of the youngest free agents available, so committing four or five years to him at $15-20 million annually and surrendering the 2018 second-round draft pick necessary to do so isn’t a scary thought, not to mention that his price could very easily fall below market value as his already slim market narrows further.
The Angels have a need for Mike Moustakas.