How Brandon Moss has developed into one of the top power hitters in the majors

Brandon Moss (right) will make his spring training debut for the Indians on Monday against Seattle.

Darron Cummings

GOODYEAR, Ariz. –– During the 2011 offseason, Brandon Moss’ baseball career was at a crossroads where he was considering applying to be a firefighter in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

Three years later outside the Indians’ clubhouse, Moss can look back at the lows of his career from 2010-June 2012 as a driving force into the power hitter he is today.

"It’s really easy to be labeled in this game and I had earned the label of a Four-A player just by not playing well when I got opportunities in the big leagues," Moss said. "I had decent years and then got to the big leagues in September and didn’t get very many at-bats. You can just see the writing on the wall."

Three years later Moss is considered one of the better power hitters in the game. Over the past three seasons he averages a home run per 15.93 at-bats, which is ninth best in the majors. That was why the Indians acquired him from Oakland during the offseason. Once a guy who was battling confidence issues, he is among the more gregarious guys in the clubhouse despite being with his new teammates less than a month.

When Moss was struggling there were two people who kept him from calling it quits — his hitting coach in Indianapolis and Moss’ wife.

REDISCOVERING THAT SWING

Moss was designated for assignment by the Pirates in 2009 and was in Indianapolis the next year. Things didn’t get off to a good start as Moss was batting .222 with just three home runs and eight RBI in mid-May.

At the time, Moss’ stance had changed considerably. It was more closed which reduced his power and made him more of a slap hitter.

Jeff Branson, who is now the Pirates hitting coach but was in Indianapolis at the time, said the organization did that at the major-league level because Moss was a bench player. But when Moss was playing every day in Triple-A, the timing and rhythm was off and Moss struggled. Branson watched a lot of video as he tried to figure out how to get Moss’ hitting back on track.

"I saw some video from the Eastern League All-Star Game (in 2005) when he had a really good year," said Branson, who played for the Indians in 1997-98 after five-plus seasons with the Reds. "We were trying to find that rhythm, timing and comfort to let his power work because he has really, really good power. It was there once and we were trying to get it back again."

At the time, Branson was also blunt with Moss — If they didn’t try to fix his swing, there wasn’t going to be much time on the roster.

Using what he describes as an exaggerated, open stance, Moss thought it might take awhile to feel comfortable going back to his old stance. It didn’t at all. From May 19 until the end of the season, Moss batted .281 with 19 home runs and 88 RBI.

As Branson noted, once a hitter rediscovers what made him successful, it is like finding that new toy again. Branson could see that Moss was excited again and that it also gave him some relief.

"I was struggling at Triple-A — he could’ve just let me go. He could have said ‘I have to worry about these younger guys. I have to take care of these guys’ since they had a lot of young guys coming up. But he didn’t," said Moss of Branson. "He could see that something was different, wasn’t right. He invested the time and the energy and worked with me and fixed it. I’m definitely grateful to him for that."

When told of Moss’ remarks last week, Branson said he was happy that he helped Moss rediscover that fire with him, but that it didn’t matter to him that some had doubts if Moss could develop into a strong player. There were many, including Moss.

"Regardless of who the guy is or age, our job is to do anything we can to help a player. Whether it is spending hours trying to find video we just try to find something to help," Branson said. "This is a guy’s career and livelihood on the line. It makes you feel good that you had a small impact, especially any time you see them being successful."

DETOUR FROM FIREFIGHTING AND JAPAN

Moss had rediscovered his swing but at the beginning of 2012, it had not gotten him to the majors. After spending most of 2011 with Philadelphia’s Triple-A affiliate in Lehigh Valley, he talked with one of his best friends about becoming a firefighter in Gwinett County, Georgia, which is just outside of Atlanta. Moss decided to give it one more try by signing with Oakland. At the time he figured playing in the Pacific Coast League would help boost the power numbers some more and lead to an opportunity in Japan.

Moss started the season in Sacramento and had a June 15 opt-out in his contract. He talked to some Japanese scouts and was all set to go until June 6, when the Athletics called him up.

At the time, Moss was upset over being called up because he stood to make more money playing in Japan compared to the major-league minimum. He also thought his time in Oakland would be short.

"I just thought I was going to get a few at-bats and then be designated or something like that and lose that spot. I was like, ‘This is just going to throw everything off.’ It turned out to not. They gave me every opportunity to play," Moss said. "They ran me out there every single day. I was like, ‘Man, they’re serious about this. They’re really going to let me do this.’ Once I realized that, I took off and ran with it."

Well, almost.

WAY TO OPENING DAY

Moss was 2-for-13 in his first five games with Oakland. When the Athletics got to Colorado for a three-game series, Moss’ wife (Allison) and son (Jaden) visited him on an off day. Much like Branson was to him two years ago, Moss’ wife told him the same thing — "this might be your last opportunity."

Allison Moss though saw what most didn’t — she saw her husband defeated because of a "built-in failure" when he reached the majors.

Said Brandon Moss in recounting the conversation: "When you come here, it’s almost like you expect to go out and not play well. Just go and let it hang out. Just do your thing and leave with no regrets. If you struggle and can’t do it, at least be able to walk away and say, ‘No matter what I did, I couldn’t do it.’ But don’t go in there beat before you get there.’ I was like, ‘It’s almost like a built-in failure. I’ve struggled here before. Now I’m going to struggle here again.’ I’m like that with a lot of things. What I usually expect to happen is going to happen.

"We talked about it and I told her, ‘I’m just going to go out there and try to hit home runs every at-bat. Just like I try to do in the minor leagues.’ And it worked."

In the Colorado series, Moss went 6-for-13 and became the first Athletics player in 16 years to have four home runs in a three-game series. His seven home runs in June were tied for eighth in the American League. Only Dave Kingman (10) and Jack Cust (8) had more home runs in their first 20 games with the Athletics.

When the season ended, Moss batted .291 with 21 home runs and 52 RBI in 84 games. The home runs were tied for third most in AL history by a player with fewer than 90 games played.

"People can definitely drag your expectations of yourself down. It can definitely make you believe something about yourself that you don’t believe. A lot of times they’re accurate," Moss said. "If someone comes up to me and says ‘You strike out a lot,’ I’m not going to say, ‘No I don’t.’ Because I do. But at the same time, I’m not going to let anyone tell me I’m a bad hitter, because I know that’s not true. But I used to think it was. She just gave me that encouragement of, ‘Go and be yourself and if you’re good, you’re good. If you’re not, you’re not. It’s OK.’ But to me, it wasn’t. This is everything I’ve always wanted to be.

"That fear of failure of being everything I could be and not being good enough, I think that was what kept me from doing it. Instead it was, ‘Go and try to be what they want you to be and if you don’t, it’s OK. You can say that it was their fault.’ She definitely had some good words of advice."

ON TO CLEVELAND

Moss made his Indians spring training debut on Monday against the Mariners and hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning. His debut came a week earlier than expected after he had offseason hip surgery to repair a torn right labrum.

Despite the hip bothering him as the season went along, Moss made the AL All-Star team for the first time. He played in a career-high 147 games, batting .234 with 25 home runs and 81 RBI.

Many have Moss projected to hit fifth in the order and play either right field or designated hitter.

"I expect to have a good year. I was having the best year of my career last year until I just couldn’t do it anymore," he said. "I definitely have gotten better as the years go on. I’m more of a cerebral hitter. I think a lot. Not necessarily about my mechanics, because I don’t care. I’m thinking about what the pitchers are going to do, how they pitch me, what their pitches look like, so the more at-bats I build against guys, typically the better I get against them. So hopefully that trend continues."