We’re 17 games into what could legitimately be referred to as the Steven Moya era. This means that we’re overdue to evaluate Moya’s performance thus far and use that to predict what the entirety of his career will contain. Hey, it’s never failed us with previous iterations of large, power-hitting outfield prospects, right?
(Those of you wearing Brennan Boesch jerseys can stop yelling at me now.)
Anyway, it’s abundantly clear after 67 major league plate appearances that Moya’s plate discipline issues still exist. He has swung and missed at 15.6 percent of the pitches thrown to him, well above the American League average of 10 percent. His 73.9 percent contact rate would rank among the 20 worst rates in the AL. He would lead the league in percentage of pitches chased outside the strike zone. His 28.6 percent strikeout rate, while surprisingly bearable, would likely not be sustainable.
But then he does this.
Those are two of Moya’s four home runs this season. The first was a pop-up. The second came while Moya was moving his back foot out of the way of a fastball off the plate. Neither would have been remotely close to leaving the ballpark if struck by a normal-sized human. Steven Moya is not a normal-sized human.
This is the Moya conundrum. We’ve known about the plate discipline issues for as long as he has been on the prospect radar. He will never approach a league average strikeout rate. Off-speed pitches will always be his kryptonite. The question throughout his ascent up the minor league ladder is whether he could put the bat on the ball often enough to let his 80-grade raw power play up in game action.
So far, so good. After hitting his fourth homer of the season on Wednesday, Moya is batting a cool .317 and slugging .635. He has four doubles and two triples in addition to the dingers, giving him 10 extra base hits in 67 plate appearances on the season. The high percentage of extra base hits — half of his 20 hits this season have gone for extra bases — will likely be a Moya hallmark throughout his career.
However, it won’t last. Moya hasn’t hit anywhere close to .317 in an appropriate amount of time at any level of play and his major league BABIP is currently .421, an unsustainable rate. The Tigers are probably doing well if they squeeze a .250 batting average out of Moya when all is said and done. And given his absurd physical gifts, that should be enough to turn him into a solid everyday outfielder.
But let’s get back to the plate discipline. Moya is swinging at anything and everything right now, offering at a whopping 59.7 percent of pitches. Only one AL qualified hitter — Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop -- is swinging at more pitches this year. His teammate, Adam Jones, was the only AL hitter to swing at that many pitches last season. Nobody came close in 2014. The Tigers have likely pushed to curtail Moya’s aggressiveness as much as possible, but plate discipline and pitch recognition aren’t learned overnight.
There’s some hope, though. Moya has walked four times in his first 57 plate appearances, a healthy 6.3 percent rate. Research shows that walk rates don’t typically stabilize until roughly 120 plate appearances, but he’s definitely off on the right foot. His strikeout rate is also tolerable, and that typically stabilizes faster.
The question that remains is what happens when the league adjusts to Moya. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, he has been well below average against curveballs and changeups, but above average against fastballs of all types (and sliders, oddly). Opponents have thrown a fair amount of junk so far, but the curveball and changeup percentages should soon start to rise if Moya continues to cause damage.
What happens after that? We don’t know. Moya has opened up his batting stance this season, which seems to be helping him cover the inner half of the plate. He looks like he belongs at the plate, which is a marked improvement over his eye tests from 2014 and 2015. There have been a fair number of at-bats where Moya has worked counts effectively, fouled off pitches, and hit towering fly balls to be swallowed up by Comerica Park’s cavernous outfield.
Early facetiousness aside, Moya’s future is still very much up in the air. He has looked the part through a handful of plate appearances at the major league level this season, but we’re looking at a very small sample here. His value still depends on his ability to take walks and put the ball into play. While we aren’t sure how he will perform once opponents adjust to his free-swinging tendencies, he’s off to a good start so far.