Kansas City's recent run has been so wildly impressive -- back-to-back American League pennants and a World Series trophy in 2015 -- that we've quickly forgotten about how near the wheels came to falling off the bus.
Just 18 months ago, the Royals were still the Royals of old. A loss to the Yankees dropped the team's record to 29-32, in a season that some saw as a moment of truth for Dayton Moore's years-long rebuilding project. Manager Ned Yost was on the hot seat, his core of young talents underwhelming. Weeks earlier the team had sent one of those talents, Mike Moustakas, down to the minors to work on his offense.
At the time, Moustakas' career seemed to be stalling. After batting a measly .152 in his first 40 games that season, Kansas City's second overall pick in the 2007 draft had the makings of a bust. A slugger all his life, "Moose" hadn't figured out how to hit at the major league level -- and it was starting to look like that might never happen.
"When I was coming up, I was always a home-run hitter, a guy that drives the ball, and I when came up I had a pretty decent first year in the big leagues," Moustakas tells ThePostGame. "My second year didn't go well ... and I really had to take a step back and figure out why I wasn't producing."
Teams had Moustakas figured out: He was a pull hitter. Defenses would stack their players eight to one side, clogging the hitting lanes where they knew he'd send the ball. His entire career, Moustakas had seen himself as a slugger, and that posed two problems: Not only was he failing to meet his own expectations, but he was failing to fill his role for the Royals, who weren't asking him to jack homers in the first place.
That's an underrated part of succeeding at the major league level. Players have to balance being the type of player they want to be while also figuring out what the team needs. Moustakas said it was even trickier solving those problems on a team like the Royals, which was long on young talent and short on veterans.
Moose says that at one point, the team had as many as 13 rookies on its major-league roster, compared with just seven veterans.
"We were all trying to find our paths of getting into the big leagues, trying to find our place," Moustakas says. "Later on, toward the end of that season, we started to figure out what our jobs were, what our roles were."
The minor-league stint was a humbling one for Moustakas, but it paid big dividends. He returned to Kansas City on June 1 and improved his hitting dramatically, batting .223 the rest of the way. Compared to the first 40 games of 2014, Moose raised his OBP by 66 points and his slugging percentage by 57, all while lowering his strikeout rate.
Once he stopped trying to do too much, Moustakas became much more productive. And his maturation also coincided with Kansas City's mid-season breakout. A 10-game win streak in June showed what the Royals were capable of doing if they could string together a little consistency. After a 48-50 start, the team went 41-23 the rest of the way, nabbing a Wild Card spot -- the team's first playoff appearance since 1985.
Then began the Royals' run that everyone is familiar with. Sweeps of the Wild Card, ALCS and AL pennant series on their way to a seven-game World Series loss. A team that eschewed big bats for contact hitting and aggressive base-running. The hapless Royals became baseball's most exciting team, twice rallying from four-run deficits in the eighth innings of playoff games. And during this year's title run, winning two World Series game in high-pressure extra-innings games.
A Royals core that was almost a failed experiment came to realize its potential -- and more. Moustakas credits Yost for insulating the team from some of external pressures.
"I felt pressure just because I wasn't playing up to my own capabilities," Moustakas says. "I felt that a little bit, but Ned always kept his composure. He was very good about handling that with us players.
"My problem was that I wanted to do so much to help us win that I started to get in my own way instead of just playing the game."
Once Moustakas understood his role -- and the way his skill set was best used at the plate -- he began to thrive. For all the midseason improvement he made in 2014, he came into 2015 an even better player, batting .284 with a .348 on-base percentage.
Instead of taking a mid-season trip to the minors, Moustakas took one to his first All-Star Game. After batting poorly in Kansas City's first two rounds of the postseason, he broke out in the World Series to hit .304 with three RBI.
The Moustakas starring for Kansas City today is a version of the younger prospect born through years fine-tuning.
"Trial and error," Moustakas says. "Go out there, and if you're not doing things the right way, try something else."
Moustakas says that since his first Royals teams were so heavy on young prospects, those players had to figure out the right way to play and win.
That took time -- so much that Kansas City's back-to-back World Series run was in danger of being aborted before it could take off.
Instead, Moustakas is enjoying his offseason as a World Series champion. He's taking advantage of his time in the spotlight, such as his partnership with Stouffer's Fit Kitchen, for whom he's now promoting their line of healthy prepared meals. Moustakas will also be hosting a Fit Kitchen Tailgate at an upcoming Chiefs game, hanging out with fans as the Royals' offseason ticks on.
In a few short months, Moustakas will be back on the field, joining his Royals teammates in donning jerseys with large targets on their backs. Kansas City's "Moneyball" strategy has paid dividends.
"My first couple of years in the big leagues we weren't a very good baseball team," Moustakas says. "We didn't do the small things, didn't do the things we need to do to win ball games."
Now, all this team seems to do is win games. Despite some moments of doubt, Moustakas has been a big part of that success.