A's encourage Moss to be himself in every way
After clubs tried to change his swing, Oakland urged slugger to focus on power
Put simply, Brandon Moss is super chatty. Extremely affable, ever engaging and super chatty. Chatty with teammates, media and, sometimes, even himself. A writer's dream, really.
Moss doesn't do bad moods. He's the guy that makes them disappear. Probably because he's always chatty, always smiling
So when Moss was missing from the clubhouse on a recent afternoon in Oakland, it was all too silent. Fifteen minutes go by, then 30. No Moss. Finally, nearing the 40-minute mark, he appears.
"I was in the potty," Moss says, unabashedly. "I do my reading, my game-playing, all my thinking there. It's my time, my me time."
Just days ago, Moss also did some reflecting there. Some reflecting and some laughing.
See, the A's slugger wasn't always a slugger. As crazy as it sounds, he was a slap hitter. A slap hitter who hit a lot of singles. The home runs came every so often, but not like they do now.
Through Sunday, Moss is averaging 14.1 at-bats between home runs since the start of 2012, with 47 total homers in just 665 at-bats. Only Chris Davis (12.7), Miguel Cabrera (12.9) and Edwin Encarnacion (13.6) hit home runs on a more regular basis. That's some elite company, with even more ranking below him: guys like Jose Bautista, Giancarlo Stanton, Curtis Granderson and David Ortiz.
Yet, the left-handed-hitting Moss is the most inconspicuous of the bunch, and because of his platoon role in Oakland, also the only non-everyday player among the power-heavy crowd, which makes his standing arguably even more impressive.
In other words, Moss has ranked among the best power hitters in the game since last year, and nobody knows it.
More importantly, it's players like Moss, 29, who have unassumingly positioned the A's at the top of the American League West standings. He's batting .339 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs over his last 20 games. The A's, holding a 1 1/2-game lead on the Rangers entering play Monday night, are 13-7 in that span.
Moss is a true example of a Moneyball system that extracts value from overlooked players, of an organization that puts these players in a position to succeed.
"Our team is very much a group of players with specific skills," said general manager Billy Beane. "We have a lot of platoons. We try to create matchup advantages. We just try to make sure guys are given the opportunity that lets them have the best chance of succeeding. It's pretty Darwinian. If you're good against left-handers, you'll play against left-handers. If you're good against right-handers, you'll play against them. It's really about production."
Moss has given the A's plenty with a swing he finally recognizes as his own.
"Here, I'll show you," Moss said.
This is why he'd been laughing at himself in the restroom. He recently had all of his career hits -- there are 338 of them -- compiled onto one reel which he was watching on his iPad, fast-forwarding through his brief tenure as a member of the Red Sox to get to 2009. It was his first full season in the Majors, with the Pirates, but he was careful not to move through that year too quickly.
"Or else we might miss them all," he said, smiling. "There aren't that many hits from 2009 here."
Moss hit .236 with seven homers that year. The screen displayed an unrecognizable Brandon Moss, a slap-hitting Brandon Moss who choked up on the bat, his stance closed, his swing nothing more than a fast jab at the ball. But that's what the Pirates wanted out of him. They wanted a Brandon Moss who could hit for average.
But that's not who Brandon Moss was, or is. And, at just 25 years old, struggling to conceptualize his identity as a hitter without any consistent success on a team that was trying to make him into someone he wasn't, the daily grind of the season became harrowing.
For Moss, the guy who's always having fun, he wasn't having any. For the first time in his life, he hated baseball.
"They called me into the office a week after I [was traded from Boston], in 2008, and I was actually doing well, but I would strike out a lot, like I do, and they said they wanted me to make adjustments in my swing," Moss recalled. "I said, 'Look, I haven't played a lot, I've been struggling to get at-bats, so let me get a month's worth of at-bats, then we'll talk about it. Then, if you want me to change, I'll change.'"
Moss hit five home runs that August, but just .245 overall, so the makeover process began. The Pirates told Moss to flatten out his bat to try to make him use the whole field. They didn't care if he struggled at first. Just try it, they said.
"And I tried it, and it was a mess," according to Moss.
"I'm not blaming them," he continued. "I was the one that was in the box. But it was more my fault. I was young, and I didn't know who I was as a hitter, anyway, so I would listen to anyone. I can still remember the way I felt and the way, every day I would come in, it was something new, a new drill, a quick fix. It was never about sticking with something to see where it goes. It made me miserable. Then in 2010, I came to Spring Training and I [stunk]. I got designated and went to Triple-A."
That's where Moss met hitting coach Jeff Branson, who watched him struggle at a level that he had previously dominated. Everything about Moss' swing was still all slap, all quick movement. There wasn't a point where he could generate power.
And wasn't that supposed to be Moss' specialty? That's the player the Red Sox envisioned when they drafted him out of high school in 2002, before shipping him away in August 2008 in a three-team, six-player deal that sent Jason Bay to Boston and Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles.
Branson dug deep into old video, like Moss is doing now, and found film from the 2005 Double-A All-Star Game. Moss saw himself with an open stance for the first time since the Red Sox told him to temporarily close it up to help his approach in the pinch-hitting role.
"Literally, that day," Moss said, "I opened up and went on a tear."
He finished the season with 22 home runs for Triple-A Indianapolis, leading all of the International League with 96 RBIs. The average he stopped caring about? .266. He was still striking out, but he was also walking more.
And Chili Davis, now Oakland's hitting coach, saw this up close and personal as an opposing coach in the International League.
"I got to see him when he was hot and again when he was cold, and then I got to see him again when he was hot, so I got to see the difference in him as a hitter," Davis said. "He's shown the ability that, when he's short to the ball, when he's squaring the ball up, the ball jumps off his bat.
"When I saw he was on our non-roster invitees list, I didn't know why they had brought him here, but I knew what he could do and was real happy he was here. He probably hit one of the longest home runs I've ever seen against us in the playoffs that year in the Minors. Just a good fastball hitter."
Tell that to the Phillies, Moss would say. Ryne Sandberg, then the Triple-A Lehigh Valley manager , was a big advocate for Moss, telling his bosses he deserved a callup in 2011. But that didn't come until September, nearly a year after Philadelphia had signed him to a Minor League deal, and it lasted just five games, before Moss' fate in yet another organization became uncertain.
Philadelphia had acquired outfielder John Bowker from the Pirates in August and considered him a better bench option than Moss, who remembers general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., telling reporters, "We just don't feel Brandon can hit a Major League fastball."
"If you know one thing about me," Moss said, "that's the one thing I could hit. That's when I realized: They don't know me. I had finally figured out who I was. I knew what worked for me. I just wanted the opportunity to see if my struggles up here were mechanically and mentally related, or if I just wasn't talented enough to play here. I really wanted to see if I was just a Four-A player, and I never got the opportunity to do that until I came to Oakland."
A's assistant general manager David Forst got the deal done, one of hundreds of Minor League contracts that fill the typical offseason. Moss was headed to Spring Training with the A's, finally removed from the idea of joining his hometown buddy as a firefighter -- "I wouldn't want him putting out my fires," Davis joked -- and ready to make a new, hopefully more permanent home with the same swing that once made him a highly-touted prospect.
"We liked him going back to his days in Boston," Beane said. "He incorporated some of the things we like in our players. With Boston, he was playing in a pretty talent-stacked organization, then he hopped and bounced around and got brief looks, and I think, if anything, we were sort of committed to giving the guy an opportunity based on his numbers."
Like Moss, Beane wasn't looking at his average. What, then?
"Walks and homers," Beane deadpanned.
Moss clobbered the ball in Spring Training and continued to do so in Triple-A Sacramento, where he was converted to a first baseman at the urging of A's director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, who knew Moss had played some infield in high school. There was just no room for him in the outfield.
Zaidi screamed and hollered through a long email chain -- Beane says it became known as The Moss Manifesto -- to convince his front-office colleagues to give Moss a chance sooner rather than later. That was in May of last year, and he was promoted June 6.
Exactly 15 months later, Moss is sitting in the A's clubhouse, staring down at his iPad and what he calls "all those wasted years."
"I wanted to see the difference and the evolution of the swing and of me as a player," he said. "So I just started watching it. I was literally in the bathroom watching it and laughing at myself. I don't really want to re-live it, I just like to see the difference because that's something I'm proud of -- the difference of where I was then and where I am now. I was just awful before."
"What you do is sign players based on who they are and give them the opportunity based on what they do and who they are," Beane said. "Guys who have done something and had success with it in the Minor Leagues just need to be given the same opportunity in the Major Leagues if they're going to duplicate it. We've tried to show a discipline that they would find a way to duplicate it. What we tried to do was trust the fact that what he did down there wasn't an illusion."
The A's are letting Moss be himself. The return has been significant.