Outfielder falls home run shy of cycle in blowout victory over Cardinals
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Tigers held a basketball shooting contest among players and coaches the last couple weeks, part of Brad Ausmus' effort to build camaraderie in his first Spring Training as manager. The players got into the spirit, not only for the skill of performing another sport, but the fun of competing against each other.
Among the rules was that teammates could use anything to distract a shooter short of physical contact. Some players brought noisemakers. Some put a teammate in the way of a shooter. For the finals, they brought out 6-foot-7 Steven Moya.
He didn't have to block shots. All Moya had to do was stand there and put his hands up to block the line of sight.
In past Spring Trainings, that might have been the biggest impression he made in camp. In this camp, it's hard to miss Moya in the stats book, too.
"He's swung the bat well from Day One," Ausmus said on Monday after Moya went 3-for-6 with four RBIs, falling a home run shy of the cycle in the Tigers' 17-5 win over the Cardinals. "He really hasn't let up at all offensively."
Moya, the Tigers' No. 20 prospect, according to MLB.com, is 7-for-17 in Grapefruit League play, and that doesn't include the two-hit, four-RBI performance he put up in the opening exhibition against Florida Southern. He's having the kind of spring that would win a job for many players, but Moya has yet to play a game above Class A ball. The logical jump for him would be to start the season at Double-A Erie, not Detroit, and he's making a convincing case for that.
The more Moya bats, the more he learns, however, the closer Detroit seems on the developmental table. He has been described as a boom-or-bust prospect. If he ends up the former, Moya could be the next great hitter to come through the Tigers' pipeline, joining third baseman Nick Castellanos and now-White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia.
"[Moya's] really the complete package," assistant general manager Al Avila said.
With a tall, lanky, muscular frame, Moya looks like he should be playing small forward for a major college program. Shockingly, however, he never played basketball other than for fun. Born in Puerto Rico but living in the Dominican Republic, Moya had another sport before he took baseball seriously.
"I was doing karate," he said.
Moya didn't commit to baseball, he said, until he was 14. He grew up idolizing Roberto Clemente, but watching outfielders like Torii Hunter. He did not have the baseball player's kind of frame back then.
"I've always been like a tall guy," Moya said, "but when I was 14, I was real skinny. I was like 6-4 and 130 pounds."
Moya was thin enough to be a shortstop in those days, he said. Not until scouts took notice of him and began to realize he had some more growing to do did he convert to the outfield.
Moya filled out a little bit as he began lifting weights, but he still didn't look the part. The one thing Moya had was a big swing, no matter which side of the plate he used.
Moya is a natural right-hander. He didn't swing left-handed until somebody dared him.
"I never swing lefty before, but I knew that I could hit lefty," Moya said. "So, I started hitting lefty and sending it out. Since that day, I started hitting from both sides, until the day I signed. The team told me they wanted me to focus on just one side, and don't worry about left-handed pitchers, that I will learn."
Thus began his long, sometimes frustrating journey up the developmental ladder. Moya hit .252 with six home runs in 60 games as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League, then struggled mightily the next couple years in the states. As a 19-year-old at Low Class A West Michigan, he hit just .206 with 12 walks and 127 strikeouts in 323 at-bats.
When Moya connected, though, he hit the ball hard -- 13 home runs, 10 doubles and a triple. That has always been the draw, through injuries that ranged from a hamstring strain in 2011 to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2012, then a shoulder sprain to begin last season.
Once he got on the field last year, Moya showed signs of adding experience to the athleticism. He struck out 106 times against 18 walks in 96 games, but hit .255 with 19 doubles, five triples and a dozen home runs. Moya began to form a game plan to set up the swing.
"Thinking better approach in counts," he explained, "knowing pitchers aren't going to throw me a fastball every time, knowing the situation of the game, what they're trying to do. Those things, knowing the game better, have made me a better hitter."
Moya also began to look to hit the ball up the middle rather than pull everything. The result was an all-around approach and a swing that could impress in games as well as in batting practice.
"He's really got a classic left-handed swing," Ausmus said, "and a 6-7 frame to go with it."
When Moya hits the ball, it still goes places. It just goes all over, not just to right. He just missed an opposite-field home run on a line drive Saturday that instead was a double.
On Monday, he drove in two runs by slapping a ground ball just inside first base, down the right-field line and into the corner, clearing the bases on a triple as Moya's long stride chewed up ground on his way to third. Two at-bats later, he sent a ground ball to left for a two-run double.
A home run for the cycle would seem like his forte, and his swing in Moya's final at-bat reflected it. A meeting with sidearming reliever Pat Neshek, however, wasn't in his favor, ending in a strikeout.
The strikeouts are going to happen, no matter the level. Moya's task at Erie, should he open there, will be to cut them down and get more of those hard swings to connect.
The potential, however, is obvious.
"I think he's got a real chance to be a major threat as a hitter," Ausmus said. "But he still has to get at-bats, get experience."