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Figuring out Mitch Moreland’s inconsistencies

Mitch Moreland has been a different hitter every year. Who will he be in 2017?

Texas Rangers v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

After the Red Sox were eliminated in the ALDS, all eyes pointed towards David Ortiz. It happened in the immediate aftermath, when he walked back out to the field for one last curtain call. It also happened in the following days and weeks. The biggest story of the offseason was going to be how they’d replace his immense production in the middle of the lineup. Among the most popular theories were signings of Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Beltran and Jose Bautista or trades for stars like Joey Votto or Paul Goldschmidt. Nobody knew what would happen, but we were ready for fireworks. Then, after striking on big trades for Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg, the Red Sox filled the lineup hole with....Mitch Moreland.

Because of the aforementioned big acquisitions, which came on the same day as Moreland’s signing of his one-year deal, the first baseman won’t ever spend much time in the spotlight as a Red Sox player. On the other hand, people will still unfairly label him as the Ortiz replacement. Sure, he was brought in because they needed another bat after the legend’s retirement, but he that doesn’t mean he’ll be playing the same role.

With that being said, Moreland will be playing a role on this team. It probably won’t be an everyday role, per se, but it will be a most days one. The educated guess would peg him as the long-end of a platoon with Chris Young, with Hanley Ramirez bouncing between first and designated hitter depending on the handedness of the opposing starter. Since Moreland will be playing more often than not under this scenario, the Red Sox will need some production from the former Ranger, even if it’ll be unfair to compare him to Ortiz. The issue is, Moreland has been inconsistent over his seven-year major-league career.

Kansas City Royals  v Texas Rangers Brandon Wade/Getty Images

The now-31-year-old has spent his entire career to this point in Texas, and hasn’t quite settled in as any specific player. Over the duration of his career, he’s been almost exactly a league-average bat, with a 98 wRC+. He’s had a couple seasons within that range, but he’s often bounced further around it. In 2015, for example, he finished the year with an impressive 117 wRC+. He followed that up with a disappointing 87 mark, though. So, what’s up with the inconsistencies and what can we expect from the new first baseman moving forward?

The place to start with Moreland will always be with the power. Once again, he is not Ortiz in this respect, nor is he even Encarnacion. However, the lefty has consistently shown off solid pop, slugging 22 or 23 home runs in each of his last three full seasons and posting an Isolated Power over .200 in two of them. He’s a flyball hitter who has consistently posted above-average home run to fly ball ratios, which is a winning combination if I’ve ever heard one. Here, we may even expect a bit of a bump — say, 25 home runs and a .205ish ISO — with a move from AL West parks to those of the AL East, even if Arlington itself is itself a friendly place to hit.

In exercises such as this one, plate discipline is the next place to look. Here, at least, Moreland has been largely consistent in his career. He’s going to swing and miss and swing at bad pitches more than you’d like. That has led to years of lower-than-average walk rates and higher-than-average strikeout rates, though with neither of those rates reaching catastrophic8 levels.

The power is the most intriguing part of his offensive game, and the plate discipline is constant but it doesn’t really explain Moreland’s inconsistencies. Unsurprisingly, this mostly comes down to batting average on balls in play. In his career, he has posted a .287 BABIP. However, in his last four full seasons, he’s put up marks of .306, .255, .317 and .266. In the years with .300+ BABIPs, he’s been an above-average overall hitter. In the others, he’s been below average.

If we just look at last season, there are a few things that stand out. For one, he was a lot more pull-heavy than previously in his career, making it easier for advanced defenses to prevent hits. However, it’s worth noting this trend started in 2015, when he posted a .317 BABIP. He also hit more fly balls and fewer grounders, a trend that generally leads to fewer hits on balls in play. This is consistent with his batted ball profile in 2013, the year he posted a .255 BABIP. So, if he’s hitting a lot of fly balls (which, to be fair, can be tough to differentiate with line drives) that could be an indicator he’s headed for another low-BABIP year. It’s also worth mentioning that luck is always a factor here.

So, the BABIP is where to look for with inconsistencies, which is admittedly a boring answer. A slightly less boring answer is how he’s hitting the ball, on the ground or in the air. What’s really important is how it will affect him in 2017 given the context of his new situation. For one thing, his BABIP should be helped by Fenway. According to Fangraphs’ park factors, Fenway is better for left-handed hitters for singles, doubles and triples. While the Ballpark in Arlington (that’s still the name, right? That’s what I’m calling it) is better for home runs, dingers don’t count towards BABIP. Plus, as I discussed above, the rest of the division’s parks favor his new context.

Additionally, Moreland will be put in more favorable situations this year. Assuming health for most of the roster for most of the year, he won’t be hitting much against lefties. Although he put up reverse splits in 2016, he has been markedly worse against southpaws over his career, with a 78 wRC+ vs. a 105 mark against righties. I’ll take that large sample as being more representative than 100 plate appearances against lefties last season. Putting him in that position should make it at least a little easier for him to be productive.

If everything goes to plan next season, Moreland won’t be close to the most important piece of the Red Sox lineup. Still, he’ll be a part of it more often than he won’t, and they’d like to see the good version. Whether or not that’s shown up has been hit or miss and mainly based on fluky batted ball events. Some of the context should help with his outlook for 2017, but for the most part we’re crossing our fingers and hoping for a league-average bat. At the very least, we can at least pencil in his 22 home runs.