Red Sox: Can Mitch Moreland maintain his red hot start?

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 18: Mitch Moreland
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 18: Mitch Moreland /

Boston Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland has outperformed expectations this season. Is he for real or is his fantastic start just a flash in the pan?

Let’s all take a moment to reflect on a fairly forgettable day in Boston Red Sox baseball. The date was December 18, 2017; it was the middle of an offseason that wouldn’t really begin until February. Nevertheless, the Fenway Faithful had become fed up waiting for Boston to sign a big bat. The fans’ impatience wasn’t without reason. The Red Sox were coming off a season in which the lineup finished second to last in slugging percentage and dead last in home runs in the American League.

They potentially had openings at first base and DH depending on how you viewed Hanley Ramirez‘s role with the team and the obvious target was J.D. Martinez. The Red Sox would eventually sign Martinez, but not until after spring training had begun.

On December 18, the Red Sox did not announce a blockbuster move for a shiny new toy. Instead, the team announced that they had resigned first baseman Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13 million deal. The news was met with a collective sigh all throughout Red Sox Nation.

It was a somewhat disappointing move at the time. While this acquisition didn’t block the move of a slugger to fill the DH role, there appeared to be better hitting corner infielders all over the free agent pool. Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, Yonder Alonso, Todd Frazier, and Mike Moustakas all signed deals that were comparable to or cheaper than Moreland’s pact. Many of those players received only one-year contracts and I was not alone thinking that the Red Sox overplayed their hand by giving him a second year on that deal.

Every player in the above group had more home runs, a higher wRC+, and a higher fWAR than Moreland did in 2017. I thought Dave Dombrowski had just put on full display his famous lack of patience and propensity to stick with the obvious solution. I couldn’t be happier to be so wrong.

Through his first 22 games this season, Moreland has slashed .323/.384/.600 with four homers and a wRC+ of 161. The 32-year-old has performed far better than he had at any other point in his career thus far and he’s been as big of a reason as any that the Red Sox are 22-8. In just one month, Moreland has gone from perhaps Boston’s most underwhelming regular to a bona fide slugger. The obvious question is can he keep this up? Let’s dig into the numbers.

Last season, Moreland put up a mediocre .246/.326/.443 slash line with 22 homers; good for a wRC+ of 98. That mark was the fourth lowest wRC+ among starting first basemen in 2017, so one would have been hard-pressed to call Moreland’s last campaign a success. However, these numbers are deceiving.

Moreland was hitting .285/.382/.495 with a wRC+ of 128 on June 13 last season when he was hit on the foot by a pitch. He wasn’t remotely the same player after that. He would hit .221/.288/.415 with an 80 wRC+ the rest of the way.

The batted ball data also suggests that Moreland’s injury may have hampered him. Prior to June 13, Moreland pulled the ball 43.0% of the time and hit the ball with an exit velocity of 95+ mph 45.6% of the time. After the injury, Moreland pulled the ball just 33.2% of the time and only managed to drive the ball 95+ mph 34.9% of the time. His BABIP also fell from .349 prior to the injury to an insanely low .232 from that point on. In other words, Moreland lost the ability to drive the ball to right field with authority after the injury and it cost him.

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If Moreland’s turn around is for real, we would expect that the batted ball data would look a lot closer to pre-injury Moreland’s profile. And indeed it does. Moreland has pulled the ball 42.6% of the time so far this year and, although he is only driving pitches with an exit velocity above 95 mph 37% of the time, his average exit velocity has increased from 89.1 mph last season to 93.9 mph in 2018. His BABIP has risen bounced back to .340 and it’s clear to those watching that that number isn’t built off seeing-eye singles.

So it makes perfect sense that Moreland’s baseline talent level is a lot closer to the player he was prior to the injury. Perhaps we should have seen this bounce back coming if we had taken a closer look at Moreland prior to his hot streak. But reverting to form doesn’t explain why Moreland’s slash line looks like it came straight out of Mo Vaughn‘s prime. There are many possible explanations for Moreland’s hot stretch; the most obvious one being that weird things happen in 22 game samples. But after digging through some data there is reason to believe that a lot of Moreland’s performance is legit.

Remember when Alex Cora said the Red Sox were going to be more aggressive swinging at strikes? Of course you do. That was the narrative around Red Sox camp all spring. Moreland has been no exception to that narrative; In 2018, he’s increased the percentage of pitches he’s swung at in the zone from 69.3% to 79.5%. He’s also cut down his swing rate on pitches out of the zone from 30.2% a year ago to 26.9%.

But this isn’t the biggest difference in Moreland’s approach. Take a look at the graphic below. You will see two density maps that contrast Moreland’s swing percentage and slugging percentage based on pitch location. The blue circle outlines the area he swung at the must and that same area is overlaid on the slugging graph.

Notice that he swung at a very high rate at pitches on the entire inner half of the plate. More importantly, notice how he swung at pitches at a very high rate in areas that he did not slug well. He was swinging very frequently at pitches on the lower half and the inside edge, but he was not driving them. Now, look at the same graphic for 2018.

Now notice how much Moreland has zoned in on his wheelhouse. He has swung at pitches in the area where he is most likely to drive the ball. It sounds incredibly obvious that waiting for pitches belt high will increase your slugging output, but that doesn’t make that advice less useful. The best hitters make you throw to them and capitalize on mistakes.

Maybe Moreland came into 2018 with a plan to wait for his pitch. Maybe hitting in the middle of the order that has probably hit a billion more homers than last year’s team also helps. Whatever the reason, Moreland appears to be a much more dangerous hitter than he was in 2017.

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Moreland is probably playing way over his head. If we see Moreland with a wRC+ over 160 at the end of the season I think we’d all be more than a little shocked. But that doesn’t mean Moreland is not due for an excellent season. He was fantastic before his injury last season, and this year he looks even better. Maybe the second year on his contract many of us groaned about this past offseason wasn’t a concession by Dombrowski. Maybe it was Dombrowski’s preference.