Oakland Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss is literally the big elephant in the room.
In his breakthrough season in 2013, Moss ranked among Major League Baseball's best in every power category there is, forcing us to query as to whether or not he is a one-year wonder. If he does show us a significant decline in statistical production in 2014, it will be one of the greatest year-to-year wanes we have seen for some time.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Moss' production at the plate. The 30-year-old slugger amassed more than 500 plate appearances for the first time in his career last season. In the three seasons before, he accumulated just 329. Additionally, he has just 66 career home runs. That means he hit nearly half of his career total in 2013 alone (30).
On the other hand, Moss is looking more like a late-bloomer and is showing no signs of slowing down. 2013 was the first season where he was able to earn a full slate of at-bats. Moss took advantage of the opportunity and never looked back. To the surprise of many, signs of a power breakthrough began in 2012.
While I'm not suggesting he is the hitting version of Dazzy Vance, whose Hall of Fame career began after age 30, all indicators fail to show any significant regression for the Oakland first baseman.
The story begins in 2012. A year after playing primarily in the minors for the Philadelphia Phillies, Moss landed in Oakland via a minor league contract. Two months into the season, he was called upon from Triple-A Sacramento. In 84 games that season, Moss would rake for 21 HR, 52 runs batted in and a batting average of .291. Not bad for a platoon player at first base.
Moss' intriguing 2012 production came in just 296 plate appearances. His walk percentage (BB/PA) rested at 8.8 percent but more damning was his strikeout percentage (K/PA). At 30.4 percent, Moss' strikeout rate, had it been eligible to qualify among all MLB hitters, would have been the fourth-highest K/PA rate in MLB. The qualifying hitters (minimum 502 PA) who struck out at a higher rate were Adam Dunn, Pedro Alvarez and Drew Stubbs.
Swings and misses often come packaged with power production. The 10 players with the highest strikeout rate in 2012 averaged 26.4 HR individually. In 2013, the 10 players with the highest K/PA rate averaged 30.6 HR individually.
Because of the appetizer-sized sample the year before, many expected regression in 2013. Moss did regress slightly but his overall power production increased significantly, culminating in a two-year turnaround unlike any in baseball.
As the everyday first baseman, Moss finished tied for the 11th-most home runs in MLB, alongside Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz and Jay Bruce. He also decreased his strikeout rate while upping his walk rate to a more satisfactory 9.9 percent. While Moss' average dipped to a level more in line with a power hitter, his fly-ball percentage (the number of fly balls per batted balls in play) increased 6 percent.
Additionally, his line-drive rate dropped nearly 3 percent, showing he was hitting the ball with more pop and distance than the year before.
What does this all mean? Barring any significant injury or catastrophic collapse, Moss proved he is one of MLB's better power hitters when provided the opportunity. While his average and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) contracted, Moss improved elsewhere to prove his power is here to stay.
The decline in his AVG and BABIP is not necessarily concerning as they retreated to a more league-average level for a hitter of Moss' pedigree. Small sample sizes, like his 2012, can do that to a player.
And just think, half of his AB came in the pitcher-friendly confines of the O.co Coliseum. More commonly known as the Oakland Coliseum, the A's home ballpark typically ranks as one of the worst for power hitters in MLB. According to ESPN's ballpark factors, O.co Coliseum ranked 25th out of 30 ballparks in HR allowed.
With no signs of slowing down, it's a wonder that Moss was designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010. Even more remarkable, Moss was able to gain just six AB for the Phillies in 2011 after playing nearly the entire season in the minor leagues.
Then again, baseball players don't typically emerge as significant power hitters as they encroach on the age of 30. Moss' last two seasons and forward projections highlight the importance of perseverance. Not only has he done the impossible over the course of the last two seasons, he is doing it well, placing him among the elite power hitters in baseball.