Dave Dombrowski caught some flak in the offseason for bringing back first baseman Mitch Moreland for 2018. Turns out, he was right.
Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski often doesn’t get the credit he deserves. The longtime executive is often labeled as a farm system destroyer with a quick trigger on blockbuster trades — it’s not entirely untrue, but neither is the fact that Dombrowski’s teams are in contention for a title more often than not.
But this isn’t a defense of Dombrowski’s trades, even the great ones that brought superstars Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel to Boston. This isn’t about gargantuan free agent signings like David Price and J.D. Martinez. No, this is about a small-time move, but one that has arguably an equal impact to any transaction he’s made in Boston.
On December 18, 2017, the Red Sox brought back their first baseman, Mitch Moreland, on a two-year, $13 million contract. The extension was fresh off the heels of a largely disappointing 2017 campaign that saw the big lefty slash .246/.326/.443 with a 99 OPS+ in 149 games with Boston.
On the whole, he was a perfectly mediocre bat at a marquee position in a lineup that desperately needed some thump. Moreland wasn’t exactly providing that, and that led many, such as myself, to lament his 2018 return.
I saw the team’s need for a big bat, and having first base available to an outside hire seemed like the easiest way to revamp the offense. I didn’t like how Moreland previously showed little ability to go the other way, and the deceptively spacious Fenway Park right field didn’t seem like a good fit.
I was begging for one of a multitude of seemingly viable first base options in free agency, such as Logan Morrison, Carlos Santana or Lucas Duda. Let’s check in on how last year’s free agent class of first basemen are faring in 2018:
Moreland leads the group in every category listed, and at a lower annual cost than all of them except Duda. The two first basemen that I called for in the offseason, Santana and Morrison, are either far more expensive for a similar output, or just straight-up underperforming. What an idiot. Hey, at least I wanted no part of the ultimate disappointment, Eric Hosmer.
Did Moreland’s rise come out of nowhere? Not exactly.
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On June 13, 2017, a pitch struck Moreland on the foot, breaking his big toe. On that day, he came hitting to a 128 wRC+. He decided to play through the injury, never letting it fully heal, as then-DH and first base backup Hanley Ramirez wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire at the dish.
From June 14 until the end of the season, Moreland lumbered to a 76 wRC+, over a 50 percent drop in production relative to the league-average hitter. Slumps happen, surely, but the timing of the injury and the stark difference in output suggests that the broken toe had something to do with it.
Not only that, but one could make a case that Moreland went through some bad luck alongside his health problems. Per Statcast, Moreland ranked 19th in baseball in barrels per plate appearance. The first baseman was barreling up the ball in 8.2 percent of his plate appearances. After all, that is the point of hitting, right? For reference, that rate put him just behind Paul Goldschmidt and Mike Trout, and just ahead of Yoenis Cespedes, Gary Sanchez, Manny Machado and Justin Upton. Maybe you’ve heard of some of those guys.
Now in 2018, Moreland has shown similar hitting prowess as he did in the first half of 2017. His barrels per plate appearances maintains at a steady 8.3 percent clip, and his BABIP is up nearly 30 points from last season. Essentially, Moreland is making equally impressive contact, only this time the ball is finding grass rather than the inside of a fielder’s glove.
Perhaps we should credit Moreland’s innovative offseason diet?
With bad health and bad luck behind him, it seems Dombrowski made the wise gamble in buying low on a veteran that clearly had more in the tank. Even more than that, he avoided some expensive and disastrous pitfalls, mostly in the form of Eric Hosmer.
Shame on me. Mitch Moreland was the right choice after all. Sometimes the sexiest choice isn’t the best one.