Brandon Moss needed a few years to break through. After playing parts of six seasons in Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, his moment coincided with his arrival in Oakland prior to the 2012 season. In three years on the east side of the Bay, Moss posted TAv’s of .335, .328 and .290. His cumulative line with the A’s was a robust .254/.340/.504 with a 135 OPS+. He was, to put it simply, a valuable offensive player.
Moss has struggled to reach those heights ever since he left Oakland in a trade following the 2014 season.
Last year for the Royals, Moss was the semi-regular designated hitter, starting 89 games in that spot. He also made five starts at first base, three in left field and one in right. He hit .207/.279/.428 in 401 plate appearances last summer and finished with a .240 TAv. Moss was worth -0.6 WARP.
Why was he so successful in Oakland, and why has he struggled so much since leaving?
The A’s leveraged Moss in a way other teams hadn’t up to that point: by using him almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. In his tenure in Oakland, Moss came to bat with the platoon advantage more than 80 percent of the time. Savvy usage. In those three seasons, he hit .256/.344/.524 against right-handers compared to .249/.323/.413 against lefties. As you can tell by the differential in slugging, it showed in his power, with 59 of his 64 doubles and 66 of his 76 home runs coming against righties.
In the three years since, that platoon advantage has largely disappeared. In his stops in Cleveland, St. Louis and now Kansas City, his numbers against southpaws have remained largely static, with a line of .245/.320/.402. That would be fine considering his track record, admirable even that he was able to largely maintain his production against same-siders. Unfortunately, the struggles against right-handers has been all too alarming. Over the last three years, Moss hit .211/.287/.452 against righties.
With such an issue over the last three seasons, it would be helpful to take a deeper dive. Here are his splits from 2015.
Going back to 2012, this was the first year Moss put up a worse than league average OPS+ against right-handed pitching. However, it was the second consecutive year he performed better than league average against lefties. When dealing with splits such as this, one year qualifies as a potential outlier. Two years is a trend. Does it continue in 2016? Let’s see.
It doesn’t. These 2016 splits looks closer to the Brandon Moss of his prime years around ages 28 and 29. Although any enthusiasm for his rebound was tempered by an abysmal second half where he hit .272/.310/.553 in August and followed that with a .099/.178/.209 in September.
He carried that performance with him to the west side of the state, opening his Royals career with a horrible start where he hit .150/.233/.313 in his first 90 plate appearances. Overall in 2017, the platoon advantage evaporated. His performance against right-handed pitching cratered.
For the Royals last summer, Moss’s contact rate was 67 percent, the lowest of his career. As you would expect from a hitter with some thunder in the bat, Moss is something of a pull hitter. However, last year when he made contact, he pulled the ball 53 percent of the time, which was the highest rate of his career. He didn’t make a lot of soft contact, which is good, but he hit more ground balls (33 percent of contact) at a higher rate than at any time since 2012, which is bad. Now, Moss isn’t channeling his inner Eric Hosmer and putting the ball on the ground at an alarming rate, so that’s not entirely the issue. But his abysmal 2016 can be chalked up to a confluence of some poor traits. Add every thing together and the real culprit was his batting average on balls in play.
Simplistic? Sure. But what if I told you his declining BABIP is a trend five years in the making where he’s lost over 100 points?
BABIP has become something of a crutch to the amateur sabermetrician to describe luck, or the absence thereof. It can tell part of the story, but it’s rarely the story. Here, in the case of Moss, I’m not so sure.
The rule of BABIP is it should remain relatively constant throughout a hitter’s career. Certainly, there will be fluctuations. It’s rare to see a player consistently lose points off his BABIP for nearly six consecutive seasons. He’s hitting the ball as hard as he has throughout his career. His batted ball profile (while more ground ball heavy last year than in the past) hasn’t changed that much. Something else is happening here besides an extreme pull rate and a (slightly) elevated ground ball rate.
Pending on what happens with Hosmer in free agency (oh god, oh god, oh god) the Royals look like they’re planning on opening the 2018 season with Moss getting the lion’s share of reps at first. That’s subject to change, of course.
As a group, Royals fans seem to overvalue defense at first base. (Hosmer is not as poor as the metrics would lead you to believe, nor is he as good as his reputation would suggest.) Moss, however, is a potential nightmare at that position. He played just 61 innings at first last year and was worth 0 defensive runs saved according to The Fielding Bible. Fine. Neither good nor bad. He played more first base in St. Louis the year prior (397 innings) as was worth -3 fielding runs saved. The year where Moss played the most innings at first was in 2013 when he was on the bag for just over 800 innings. Are you sure you want to know the results? Maybe cover one eye. That year he was worth an abysmal -12 defensive runs saved.
There’s a reason teams have moved him around the field. It’s not because he’s versatile. It’s because they’re trying to find the place where he causes the minimal amount of damage.
After making $8.25 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility in St. Louis in 2016, Moss signed a back-loaded deal with the Royals. He earned $3.75 million last summer and posted a -0.6 WARP, the first year he finished in the red since he was a part time player in 2011. For the upcoming year, the salary increases to $7.25 million.
Moss is good for a strikeout three out of every ten at bats and a hit twice out of every ten. He’ll club somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 home runs and will play below average defense. It’s possible he could get back into positive WARP territory, but a 1.0 WARP feels like his upside. Given his contract, that’s around what the Royals are paying him. Moss used to be a decent platoon option on a team full of average to above average regulars. He would have done well on the 2015 Royals. However, it’s a stretch to even classify him as a platoon option these days. And with the 2018 Royals devoid of the star power and the move the line style of baseball of the past, he’s miscast, no matter the role he plays on this team.
Given how awful his 2017 season was, he’s a good bet for a bounceback offensively. As in, he could get a little closer to league average overall, but the bet here is he’s still below average with the bat. Slight improvement is better than no improvement. Yet as the glory days of Oakland grow further in the rearview mirror, expectations for any kind of a big bounce and the production that would go with it should be tempered.