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Grading year one of Cincinnati Reds record free agent signing, Mike Moustakas

Solid, yet unspectacular...and that’s totally fine.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Reds moved their top prospect to land a high-profile pitcher, and then watched him breeze to the franchise’s first Cy Young Award. They wanted an offensive upgrade so badly they signed the guy who led all baseball in doubles in 2019, and gave him as player-friendly a contract as possible just to get him signed. They also signed their first ever Japanese star, bringing a new nation of eyes to the club for the first time.

That’s a lot of buzz for a little over a year and a half of action, especially for a franchise that hadn’t made much noise of late. That’s emphasized even more when you realize that none of those moves was actually the team’s biggest free agent cash-splash of all time.

While Nick Castellanos could end up a Red for four years and matching the total contract outlay, it’s the $64 million deal that Mike Moustakas signed sans opt-outs that’s the single biggest free agent commitment in Reds history. And in signing Moose, the Reds put a large sum of money into a player who doesn’t really jump off the page.

To clarify, he doesn’t jump off the page in either direction - he comes with few superstar qualities, but also with zero real flaws. He doesn’t strike out at copious rates like most other hitters in today’s game, but also doesn’t walk a ton, either. He’s no world-class sprinter creating fear on the bases, yet is far from a monolith sinking a team’s defense. He’ll bring power without expectation of a dinger title, and looks nothing akin to a swashbuckler while standing in the batter’s box.

That’s precisely what gives him tremendous value, though, at least in terms of roster building. He’s not the grade that lands you on the Dean’s List, but he’s the B in the tough class without having to spend more time there than you need, the one that gives you the chance to hammer out an A elsewhere with freed up time. A set it and forget it name you can turn to daily and not worry about.

Perhaps it was the odd, shortened nature of the 2020 season that has me wondering why I, like pretty much everyone else, haven’t really spoken much of Moose. He twice missed games due to COVID scares, and ended up with a thigh bruise that set him aside from less time than it felt like when it happened, and perhaps that’s why I stare at his production from 2020 and fail to really remember much of it.

That said, he played a decent amount (44 games in the regular season), and produced just about what we would’ve expected in that time. His 108 OPS+ was above his career 101 mark, better than the 107 mark he put up between Milwaukee and Kansas City in 2018, and just about in-line with the 113 overall mark he’d put up in all games from 2016-2019. His .230 batting average was below his .251 career level, but batting average across all MLB was just .245 (down from .255 as recently as 2017).

Extrapolated for a 162 game pace, that’s a 29 dinger season. That’s Moose! That’s precisely what the Reds should’ve hoped for in a baseline season from him, especially in an age 31 season.

Diving a bit deeper into his 2020 performance provides a few other tidbits that could potentially suggest there’s still plenty more left in the Moose tank, too. His O-swing%, or percentage of time he swung a pitches outside the zone, sank to just 31.4% in 2020, the second lowest mark of his career and lowest since 2015. That paired well with his overall eye at the plate, as while his strikeout rate did jump to a high of 22.1%, that came with a similar spike in his walk rate to a career-best 11.0%. From a batted-ball perspective, he was exactly what he’s been for most of his career, too, as he remained a pull-center lefty bat with fly-ball proclivities, precisely the kind of hitter who should, in theory, thrive offensively with 81 home games in GABP on the docket.

The one aspect of Moose that I was particularly interested in from a purely 2020 perspective was with the glove, however. He was tasked with moving across the diamond from 3B to 2B full-time, and moving players up the mobility spectrum in their age-31 seasons isn’t exactly something you see too often. That said, with the preponderance of shifting in the modern game, the thought was the Reds would be able to hide his perceived lack of range, and that he’d shown throughout his career that he was a plenty capable defender of balls hit close enough to him to be gloved.

I don’t know if ‘surprisingly’ is the right adverb here, but I’ll use it - Moose was surprisingly cromulent in most defensive grades at 2B last year. Baseball Reference’s Total Zone didn’t love his work there, but didn’t completely bury him, either, while other defensive metrics (while admittedly wonky in small samples) actually scored him quite well. Of the 33 players who spent at lest 200 innings at 2B last year, Moose graded out 17th in UZR/150, better than familiar names like Jose Altuve, Jose Peraza, and DJ LeMahieu. He ranked 17th in DEF, as well, and while errors committed hardly tell a true tale of one’s overall defensive abilities, he made precisely zero errors while playing 2B last year - a testament to his reputation of making plays on the balls he can actually get to.

A simple replication of that over a typical 162 game season would, in theory, be just about what the Reds should’ve expected. An OPS+ 7-12% above average, a lot of dingers in a park that’s tailor made for him, and league-average defense. The 0.7 fWAR he posted in 44 games played would, in theory, have put him in the ~2.5 fWAR range for an entire normal season, right in-line with the 2.0, 2.4, and 2.8 marks he ran up in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively. The eye-test certainly backed that up in 2020, I think, as he certainly didn’t look tangibly different than in previous years, and that’s seemingly reflected in Dan Szymborski’s 2021 ZiPS projections, as Dan projects him as a 2.1 zWAR player with a 109 OPS+ in 529 PA.

In a baseball world where players are perennially underpaid early and potentially overpaid late in their careers, front offices would likely agree on two main tenets when it comes to spending big bucks. If you ink a player to an early extension, you hope you reap much more on the team side in return than the overall cost. If you spend big in free agency, you’re mostly just hoping you get anything close to your money’s worth. It’s been a tremendously small sample so far, but it appears in the latter case regarding Moose, the Reds have a player who’s just exactly what they hoped to land, at least if his 2020 production is to be trusted. And given the player he is, there’s no reason to expect anything less for 2021, with a slight chance the short porch in GABP helps him luck into a few more dingers than ever before.