Mike Moustakas is a black box that was 11-31 with three doubles and a home run in AAA Omaha last month. Before that he was a Greek statue of a third baseman turning to dust in the back room of a Victorian museum, and before that he was a teenage prospect with no time between minor disappointment and major breakout season. On May 20 he was hitting .152/.223/.320. On June 1 he was called back up; he's doubled twice since then.
He is not the Royals' first round-trip visitor to Omaha. Alex Gordon did the same thing, and Zack Greinke before that. Gordon and Greinke slipped through mediocrity into catastrophe, whiled away a couple of months as the best player on their team, and came back changed players.
Kolten Wong had played 52 regular-season games and hit .192/.239/.223 when he was sent down. That's really bad, but it's split across two seasons and a million sudden shifts in role. In AAA he hit .344 in 15 games. Since then he's hit .327 in 14 games.
Kolten Wong hit .258 on balls in play in April and he hit .381 on balls in play in May. If you think of him as a guy who's basically always going to hit like a Kolten Wong projection the 15 games in which he beat up the Pacific Coast League are a waste of two unusually good weeks.
It's both a credit to and an indictment of the Royals that they were able to recoup their investment in two prospects on the edge, having first drafted and put them there.
The Cardinals have been far more proactive with their prospects. They move fast through the minor leagues, but they're integrated slowly into major league roles—so slowly that a guy like Jon Jay or Allen Craig can go through multiple role changes, and fall in and out of favor multiple times, before he's a full-time starter at the position we know him for.
Kolten Wong has struggled to escape the shadow of Matt Carpenter and Mark Ellis, and that's the Cardinals' MO. An explicitly temporary minor league demotion is more unusual, mostly because the Cardinals don't need it—either a player like Matt Adams is on a temporary injury-replacement assignment or he's working in a role that involves time off as a matter of course.
"They just kinda told me that they saw things in my swing that it was getting too long," Wong said. "And before it got too bad or too late, they wanted to send me to a less stressful environment to work on it. I took it as an opportunity to work on my approach. ... I could feel it getting a little big, too. That's not the player I am, so when it gets that way, it's in my best interest for me to do whatever I can to turn it around."Of course it's not in his best interest to tell an MLB.com contributor that he's going to hit .450 until even his halfwit boss gets it into his stupid head what a stupid idea it was to demote him. But I've had jobs before, too, and slumps, and backing up to a place where I can succeed without confronting the same existential threats every day has helped me sometimes.
"I feel like I'm around there again," he said. "I think my swing's back. My confidence is definitely back. Now I just want to get back up and take the confidence that I've developed from here and use it there."
That is, I think it's possible that something like this could help Kolten Wong or Mike Moustakas. I think it's much more likely to help Moustakas, who has failed for years now, than it is Wong, but my immediate reaction to Kolten Wong's demotion conflated those two questions in a way that probably wasn't helpful.
I've been reading a lot of old Bill James lately—the Managers book and a random Baseball Abstract from a used bookstore—and what's really struck me about it is how he's willing to take as read the thing traditional sportswriters most often accused him of forgetting: The idea that baseball players are human beings who must sometimes be taught and coerced and tricked into playing above or below or just toward their statistical projection.
Sometimes you give Rick Ankiel three months to be the best player in the history of the Appalachian League and he still can't pitch at the end of it; sometimes you give Alex Gordon a chance to work on some things and he does.
Why are we so worked up all the time about Mike Matheny? I don't think it's just because we often think he's bad at his job—it's because we can't separate from that our lingering doubt about whether his job is important at all.
Now that Kolten Wong is the Rookie of the Month, and safely ensconced on the major league roster, I can separate those two thoughts more easily. I think Matheny's job is important, and I also think that Kolten Wong is not Mike Moustakas.