Tigers prospect Steven Moya was hitless in the All-Star Futures Game, but he has posted a muscular .551 slugging percentage at Erie. (Hannah Foslien / Getty Images)
It is 2014 and baseball is a numbers game. Statistics are adored, at least by those regarded as the sport’s scientists.
“Moneyball,” the book that made digits of greater importance than bird dogs sitting in bleacher seats with their radar guns, reigns as baseball’s new Bible.
And that explains why Steven Moya never caught on with most Tigers followers, even when the Tigers front office and development judges said, wait, hold on, let him be healthy for a full season.
Above all, let a kid born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Dominican Republic adapt to America and, more importantly, to a full year of minor league baseball. Moya, they insisted, will show you why we’re impressed even when fans and sabermetrics sages see nothing.
Moya has become the Tigers’ bust-out player of 2014, thanks to 26 home runs at Double A Erie. He has 82 RBIs and a muscular .551 slugging percentage, partly explained by 27 doubles and three triples. It is something to consider when Moya, who turns 23 on Aug. 9, is a 6-foot-6, 232-pound right fielder and left-handed batter who also has speed and a solid glove, and carries a plus arm.
“His story is no different from (Eugenio) Suarez, no different from Avisail Garcia (former Tigers prospect now with the White Sox),” said Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager who supervises Detroit’s minor leagues.
“All of a sudden, you hear, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ Well, if you’re looking only at prospects and pure, hard numbers, you’re missing half the boat. Our development people are developing talent based on physical ability.”
Moya is an example of the Latin American player who arrives in North America minus the statistical portfolio United States prospects have been accruing since their high school days. Latin players, especially from the Dominican Republic, often have played in unstructured settings, minus statistics, or context.
If that same player who was signed because of upside happens to be hurt in his early years, his stock will remain ankle-high — but only among outside observers. The Tigers watched Moya deal with Tommy John surgery two summers ago and play in only 59 games. Then, in 2013, there was a shoulder issue that crimped part of his spring at Single A Lakeland
This year is the first in Moya’s professional career when he has played 100 games. He still has work ahead of any move to Detroit, which can be seen in numbers that do, in fact, count: .296 on-base average in 101 games, with 114 strikeouts and only 17 walks.
But in the same way that Suarez was an upper-tier prospect who quickly hopscotched past two minor league levels and got a job in Detroit in 2014, the Tigers see Moya making slight, steady progress with the strike zone, gaining in patience, all because a player so young is simply experiencing regular work at an advanced level.
“I saw him hit a ball yesterday that would have gone on the Pepsi Porch (Comerica Park),” said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager, speaking of Moya’s 25th homer of the year, which he hit during Dombrowski’s visit Wednesday at Erie.
The fact Moya is seen by critics as less than a perfect player can frustrate his bosses. They see his 13 stolen bases, his throws from right field, his ability to track down balls in the gap, and his power, and they focus on strengths rather than on weaknesses that experience can cure.
“The only thing I’ve heard about Moya,” Avila said, speaking of naysayers, “is his strikeouts. I hear very little about his tremendous power, his record pace for homers and RBIs, his stolen bases, or the fact he’s a great outfielder who can play anywhere out there. Or, about his arm.
“For sure, he needs to get better at the other stuff (strikeouts, walks, pitch judgment), and even more so in the near future, I think that’s coming for him. He has some trouble facing left-hand pitching, but that’s not exclusive to him. That’s part of the history of baseball and plenty of established stars have had challenges there.
“But we work with the physical, and mental, ability of prospects, and with their ability to learn and to retain. And a third thing: It’s that desire, that fortitude, that they’re not going to quit.
“Baseball can beat you down when things are not going well,” Avila said. “You’ve got to keep on going, not quit. All of that put together is how we define and evaluate a player. And Moya is a perfect example of that process.”