Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Mitch Moreland.
When the Red Sox signed Mitch Moreland last winter, it was among the most underwhelming acquisitions in recent memory. We all knew that he wasn’t the real replacement for David Ortiz, but at the same time, he was the bat who was literally brought in to replace Ortiz, so it was underwhelming. He obviously didn’t live up to those standards, but at the end of the day he was a solid member of the lineup and one of the few hitters on the roster who at least lived up to expectations, and he outproduced some of them.
So, there were plenty of positives is what I’m saying. The biggest one was his ability to hit for power, though this was more about how well he hit relative to the rest of the Red Sox than anything else. The first baseman finished the year with a .197 Isolated Power and 22 home runs, which is fine but unspectacular for his position and essentially exactly what you expect from him. In fact, this was the fourth consecutive year in which he hit either 22 or 23 home runs. Still, every time he came to the plate he felt like a threat to go off the Monster or over the wall, and that was a very rare feeling for the 2017 Red Sox.
In addition to the power, he showed off a better understanding of the strike zone than we’ve ever seen from him, and it let to an improved line despite a lackluster batting average on balls in play. Thanks to a team-wide approach of patience, Moreland walked just about ten percent of the time — a career-high for a full season — and struck out only 21 percent of the time, his lowest rate since 2012. A lot of the Red Sox were patient to the point of frustration, but Moreland found a way to strike a balance, and it ended up leading to an average finish to the season.
He was also particularly good at the plate in the first half, which was a big key for this Red Sox team and a reason so many people are clamoring for him to come back next year. He posted a 106 wRC+ in the first half, and if you’ll recall that was when the offense needed him the most. Although he struggled more in the second half, the additions of Eduardo Nuñez and Rafael Devers made it more palatable. There weren’t many players in the lineup hitting at that point of the year, and Moreland’s contributions were part of the reason they were able to stay in contention.
Finally, there was the matter of his defense. I’ll be honest and say that he was actually a little disappointing in this regard, particularly when it comes to scooping low throws, but I think a lot of that had to do with expectations. People raved about his defense coming into the year, and I’m not sure he lived up to those rave reviews. That being said, he definitely provided more good than bad at first base, which is important with this current Red Sox infield.
While Moreland was better than a lot of people expected and won over the hearts of many in the fanbase, at the end of the day he still finished as a league-average hitting first baseman, which isn’t ideal. There were a few major issues in his offensive game, particularly his ability to hit for average. Cutting his strikeout rate was big and kept is AVG in a somewhat respectable level, but generally speaking Moreland’s seasons are determined by BABIP. When he’s above-average, it’s because he hits a few more balls on a line that fall in for hits. That wasn’t the case this year, as he finished with a .272 BABIP, and it led to a technically below-average year by wRC+ (98).
In addition to that, there was his second half. While him performing in the first half was more important, as explained above, the second half still counted. The Red Sox could have used a little more from him after the All-Star break, but instead he posted a wRC+ of 88. He was particularly bad in July when he posted a 21 wRC+.
Finally, if you look at some of his splits, you’ll find the other issues in his game. The platoon splits were an issue, but I’ll get to that in a minute. He also struggled in high-leverage spots, which actually surprised me. It seemed to me that he was one of the players that always seemed to come through in the important spots, but according to Fangraphs’ metrics, Moreland posted a 45 wRC+ in high-leverage spots. Finally, he was really hurt by the shift, which came in almost all of his plate appearances. Whenever he was shifted, which was the majority of the time over the season, his wRC+ dropped by almost 100 points.
The Big Question
So, this is kind of an interesting question to answer now, because as we know things didn’t really work out like this. The plan heading into the season, if you’ll recall, was for Moreland to only play first base against right-handed pitching. When a southpaw was on the mound, Hanley Ramirez was going to shift to first base and Chris Young would take over at DH. The former’s health prevented that from happening, and Moreland was forced to play against everyone. This unsurprisingly hurt his end-of-year line, as he posted an 85 wRC+ against lefties vs. a 101 mark against righties. If the roles had played out how we all expected, Moreland likely would have finished with better overall rate numbers, albeit in less playing time.
Looking ahead to 2018
Moreland was good enough, relative to his expectations and the rest of the lineup, that many would like to bring him back. The truth is, though, that the Red Sox’ best chance of upgrading their lineup from the outside comes at first base. Moreland is someone to keep in contact with as an emergency option, but at the end of the day he’s not what Boston needs. He’ll land somewhere on a one- or two-year deal for a team that needs a bridge at first base, and that’s a nice little niche role he’ll have carved out for the next few years.