In a slump, the mental and physical combine to confuse, and the player ends up in a spiral. “You go up to the plate and you think about your weaknesses, and you start focusing on them, and you start chasing,” Brandon Moss said before a game against the Giants, adding “it all starts to spin around.” Since having offseason hip surgery, the Cardinals’ slugger has been spinning in both facets of the game.
A recent tear might be the result of getting right, though. An adjustment to his mechanics, a milestone in his workouts, and a slight tweak to his approach all recently came together. The result looks more like the Moss that averaged 33 home runs for every 600 plate appearances coming into this season.
To illustrate how he’s gotten his game back together, there might not be a better way than to have Moss take us through three plate appearances against Rubby de la Rosa last week. The pitcher got the better of him once, but when the batter did his damage, it was the result of a convergence of factors.
Before he even stepped to the plate for the first time against de la Rosa, Moss had two physical changes that were starting to favor him.
For one, he was nearing his old playing weight after offseason surgery on his hip. “I was 215 [pounds] last year. Had the surgery in October, didn’t start rehabbing until late November. When I got traded, I just started squats the week before. I was down to 193,” said Moss, shaking his head at the thought. “I’ve hit a lot of balls this year that get to the track or the wall, where usually they’re quite a bit further.”
But Moss is finally working out again, and that’s important to him, even if he originally hurt himself doing those same squats. “I’m 205 now,” he said of his weight. “I feel good because I’m lifting again. I’m getting closer. And that’s where I drive the ball from, the strength in my legs.” Maybe that return to the weights inspired his teammates to make bench-lifting motions after his double Tuesday night. If they were telling him to lift more to get that extra three feet of distance, he responded well, hitting a walk-off home run later that game to dead center.
That offseason surgery on a torn hip labrum put a crimp in Moss’ style, but getting back to full strength is harder than just getting physically healthy again. Bad health begets bad mechanics, and after you fix the broken thing, you have to re-find your mechanics.
“This year, pretty much this whole year, I just didn’t feel comfortable being as open as I used to be,” Moss said of his stance, which was once famously opened for great results. Without the strength in his legs, opening up just led to the player feeling like he was “losing his back leg and collapsing backwards.”
Part of the problem was weakness, but another was bad learned mechanics. “When you do it for so long one way, of course the other way isn’t going to feel right,” Moss said, agreeing that it was like a pitcher trying to unlearn bad habits acquired while trying to deal with a nagging injury. “I am dealing with mechanics I learned to cope,” he said.
Two days before Rubby de la Rosa faced the Cardinals, Moss made a decision to go back to his old open stance, even if it didn’t feel right. He had enough strength to “get down into” his legs, and make it work, and immediately he felt that he was seeing the ball better.
“When I’m standing taller and closed, because I don’t have any room to gather myself, my shoulders are up and tight. And people said, relax your shoulders, my hands don’t go into a natural slot. Now when I open up, my shoulders are relaxed and on plane. It’s just how my body works. By the time the pitch comes, I’m closed, but this allows me to see it all the way in.”
Now it was time to deal with refining his approach at the plate. To sum up what he wanted to do, Moss said that he was “Not looking for a pitch, not looking for a fastball or a breaking ball, or up or down. Try to be easy to the ball, on time, gather in my approach, and when you see a pitch you like, that’s when you swing. You’re ready for a pitch you like, not ready for a pitch you think they are going to throw.”
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s something Ryan Braun also admitted to me recently. “I wish I had the discipline to constantly sit on the pitch down the middle,” the Brewers’ slugger told me. “I would probably more successful. You get an idea of how you are being pitched by a pitcher or by a team pretty quickly, though. And then you anticipate that pitch, and you think ‘slider away to the right-handed hitter’ and you’re more likely to go out of the zone to chase the pitch if it actually is a slider away.”
Moss sounds just like Braun when he talks of this skill. “When you’ve played the game long enough, you know yourself well enough to know what you’re set up for. There’s a sequence, and you know where you are on that, and you get caught in the guessing game. Then you swing just because you guessed right,” Moss felt.
It’s a struggle to keep your mind open and not fall into the anticipation game. It’s a struggle from at-bat to at-bat, and it’s a struggle within one at-bat.
Listen to Moss talk about his first plate appearance against de la Rosa on August 27th: “He started me off with a changeup, for a ball. Then he went slider for a strike, and then he went fastball up and away for a ball. I said he’s going to throw that changeup down, 100%. And he threw the changeup down, and I swung over the top of it for strike two. JUST BECAUSE HE THREW IT, YOU DON’T HAVE TO SWING. I got so frustrated with myself. He ended up throwing it again, and I wasn’t sitting on it, and I hit a hard ball to the first baseman, and he made a good play. You do so much better when you don’t sit pitches. I wasn’t telling myself what was coming.”
Brandon Moss knew this changeup was coming, in this location.
Even after learning his lesson in the first tussle, Moss still had fight his tendency to anticipate the pitch. “Same thing next at-bat,” he said. “He got me 0-2 with two fastballs. Then it was fastball in, slider in, changeup down, fastball in. And I laid off all of them because I was telling myself, don’t sit on a pitch. I guarantee that once it got to 2-2, even in my head I had to fight it, I knew he was going to throw that changeup. And he did. I didn’t just sit on it and try to swing because I was right. I ended up walking.”
In the third at-bat, Moss felt like he was truly seeing de la Rosa well, and his open stance was letting him see the ball longer. Together, that set him up for success: “Wonger got a hit, and we were down a run, and there were two outs, and it was the top of the fifth, and he’s going to try and get a quick out, he’s probably going to throw that changeup. Don’t worry about it, I said to myself, just see the ball up. And he hung a changeup and I hit a homer. If I had told myself to sit on the changeup, I might have been looking down.”
Moss thought that he might be better on first pitches because he had less opportunity to think about what was coming. Later in the at-bat, he thinks himself into trouble. “I hit first pitches better because I don’t think, I just react,” the slugger said. “And 3-2 is such a bad count for me because I’ve been in the at-bat so long to see the sequence, and you almost know what it’s going to be, and it’s going to be your worst pitch or their best pitch. Either way, you shouldn’t swing on it just because you got it.”
The stance had something to do with the approach, and the approach had something to do with the stance. Ever since Moss opened back up, he feels he “started seeing the ball better, stopped chasing so many pitches, and it’s only been like 8 at-bats, but every at-bat has been better. Every at-bat has been laying off close pitches and swinging at strikes, and I feel like that’s been the problem. When you’re not in good position, you tend to give the pitcher a strike in every at-bat.”
So getting it right meant getting right physically and mentally. And that’s not easy to do in the middle of a 162-game grind.
“In-season adjustments are hard. Not only are you fighting things here and now, the lack of strength, the fact that it’s a long year and you’re playing after a rehab, but it’s also the fact that you’re fighting the demons from the year before,” Moss said of his struggles. “That became the normal, and now that I’m trying to get back to it, my mind is telling me it doesn’t feel right.”
If Brandon Moss keeps up the tear like the one he’s been on since he made the change — he’s batting .400/.520/1.000 in the 25 plate appearances since — here’s thinking that it’s beginning to feel right for the slugger.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.