Colin Moran was at a crossroads. The 2016 season was over, and the left-handed-hitting third baseman had just slashed .259/.329/.378, with 10 home runs and 124 strikeouts, in Triple-A. His pair of big-league cameos had been every bit as abysmal — in 25 plate appearances for the Houston Astros, he logged three base hits and one free pass. Truth be told, the sixth-overall pick in the 2013 draft had essentially gone from prospect to suspect due to his lack of production.
Moran recognized that fact. Moreso, he did something about it. As Tony Kemp, his former teammate, related to me last fall, Moran came to the conclusion that his “swing doesn’t play in the big leagues,” and told his hitting coordinator, “I need to switch something.”
He did just that, and the results speak for themselves. Moran returned to Triple-A in 2017 and slashed an eye-opening .301/.369/542, with 18 home runs in only 350 at-bats. (A facial fracture, courtesy of a foul ball, knocked him out of action for six weeks.) His turnaround season included seven games with the eventual World Series champs, for whom he went 4-for-11 and hit first MLB long ball.
The 25-year-old University of North Carolina product is now a Pittsburgh Pirate, having been traded from Houston to the Steel City this past January in the five-player Gerrit Cole deal. In 248 plate appearances for his new club, Moran is hitting .265/.347/.419 with seven home runs. He shared the story of his career-altering adjustments prior to a recent game at PNC Park.
Colin Moran: “In a perfect world, I would have made the changes earlier. That’s something I think about a lot. It often takes a bad year to get to, ‘Alright, let’s change some stuff, let’s figure out what works,’ and unfortunately that’s what happened with me. It’s preferable to think forward rather than wait for that bad year.
“My swing was off when I got called up in 2016. Things didn’t feel all that great with it — I didn’t know why — and I got exposed, especially at the top of the zone. I remember my first at-bat. You kind of know in the batter’s box when guys are attacking a weakness, and the first few pitches were up and in. It was like, ‘Man.’
“In college, and even early in my minor-league career, I was pretty good at getting my hits. But up here the hitters are really good. There are stretches where they’ll go through a little bit of a funk, but for the most part they usually have their A-swing. I needed to get more knowledgeable about what made my swing work.
“There were too many days where I had that B-swing, where it’s basically, ‘Man, things don’t feel that good today; I have to grind and battle to try to get something out of this.’ There are still days like that — don’t get me wrong — but now it’s more of just locking in on my pitch. I can take the swing out of it, because I know it’s there. I can simplify to, ‘Alright, let me get a pitch to hit, and I’ll take care of it.’
“Our hitting coordinator with the Astros was Jeff Albert — he’s now their assistant hitting coach — and I kind of started from scratch with him. This was early in the [2016-2017] offseason. We went over all of my flaws. He kind of laid it out, and then I put in three months of hard work to learn some of the changes. Even though they might not have been major, having swung the same way my whole life, it took a good part of the offseason to make it feel natural.
“When I first got called up, I scuffled [2-for-19 with six strikeouts]. When I got sent back down, I searched for all the answers. I was searching for what would have more success up here, and I was changing stuff every week. I lost my swing. Having gone through those struggles, I was open to some changes.
“Swing plane was a big part of it, and I had to get more efficient. If you’re trying to catch up to mid-90s and you have a lot of wasted movement, it’s going to be tough. The more time you have to recognize the pitch… especially with guys throwing so hard now. And a lot of them throw at least two pitches that appear the same out of their hand.
“I used to be real handsy in my mentality. I had my hands in a position where I had a lot of movement before I was ready to hit. I got rid of that. I put my hands in a position where they were ready to fire, and from there use my lower body — use my rotation — to hit the ball. When I get too hands-oriented, I cut off my rotation, which leads to more ground balls. A more efficient swing led to more driven balls, which meant more homers, more doubles, more extra-base hits.
“It’s tough to get too many hits on the ground, and it’s always been tough to get too many extra-base hits on the ground. There’s a lot of focus on launch angle in the game now, for sure. Of course, Ted Williams used to talk about trying to get the ball in the air. Pulling the ball in the air is a true testament of a good hitter. If I pull the ball on the ground, it was probably a bad swing.
“I feel that I can [handle pitches in all quadrants of the zone]. There are times where I miss pitches, but I feel comfortable with every pitch. The home run off Matt Harvey was a high one. I obviously wouldn’t want to swing at a pitch up there too often — I probably wouldn’t have much success — but one of the advantages of having a better swing plane is that I have a better chance of having success. I don’t need a pitch over the middle of the plate that I put my A-swing on. I have more room for error.
“I like where my swing is now, but at the same time, there are always going to be adjustments. I think the biggest thing that has helped me, from learning with Jeff, is better knowing what I’m doing. I can go into the cage with a plan, rather than trying to figure out where my swing is. Picking up little pieces is easier when you have that foundation. Before, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Guys would talk hitting and I really didn’t understand it. I kind of did, but not in the same way I do now.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.