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One Big Question: Can Mitch Moreland thrive on the long end of the platoon?

Mitch Moreland wasn’t great against righties last year. Can he prove that was a fluke?

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

Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Mitch Moreland.

The Question: Can Mitch Moreland thrive on the long end of the platoon?

We all knew the Red Sox would target at least one bat this winter, and the one they ended up getting belonged to Mitch Moreland. It was an underwhelming move, to be sure. However, a few other things are true about his addition to the roster.

  1. Moreland physically replaces David Ortiz in the lineup, but he is obviously not the symbolic replacement many were expecting.
  2. Moreland’s bat is important, but his glove is at least close to as important to his value to this team.
  3. Moreland will likely not be an everyday player, but rather a most-days player as the long end of a platoon with Chris Young.

It is this last part that I would like to focus on today, which was obvious because, ya know, it’s the headline.

Before I get to that, though, let’s take a quick look at who Moreland is overall as a player. On defense, he is a plus defensive first baseman who, by Defensive Runs Saved, was close to elite. As silly as Gold Glove voting typically is, he did get the trophy last year. At the plate, you mostly know what you’re getting from Moreland on a year-to-year basis. In terms of plate discipline, he’s going to be slightly worse than average in terms of both drawing walks and striking outs. To counteract that, he’ll hit a few more than 20 home runs with solid-but-not-gaudy overall power. Because of the platoon, he probably won’t play quite as much as he did with Texas so his counting stats might not exactly carry over, but the basic idea remains the same.

MLB: ALDS-Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Looking ahead to 2017, that platoon is the all-important factor for Moreland. As a lefty, he will be tasked with the bulk of the playing time and the hope is that he’ll be able to thrive by facing righties the vast majority of the time. Over his career, he’s been a clearly better hitter in these situations. Whereas he’s a .240/.295/.378 (78 wRC+) hitter against southpaws, he’s hit .258/.321/.457 (105 wRC+) against righties. That statline clearly isn’t elite or anything, but it’s definitely serviceable as a guy who will be tasked with hitting towards the bottom of the lineup.

Now, the bad news. In 2016, Moreland’s platoon splits went awry. In a strange turn of events, he posted reverse splits. Against lefties, he hit .277/.320/.479 (110 wRC+) versus a .221/.293/.407 (81) line against righties. Now, before you get excited about that first part, it came in just 100 plate appearances. We can pretty much write that off. Moreland received 403 plate appearances against righties, though, which is a fairly substantial sample. On the plus side, he’s not too far removed from being a force against righties, as he posted a 134 wRC+ against them in 2015. Obviously, the Red Sox don’t want a repeat performance of 2016 in the coming year. A bounce back in this area is key for his fit in the lineup.

Looking at his plate discipline numbers against righties, there wasn’t any huge dropoff. He saw a small decrease in walk rate, falling from eight percent in his career to 7.4 percent last season. That can make a difference in OBP, but it’s clearly not the main cause for his fall from grace. Similarly, his strikeout rate rose from 20.5 percent to 22.8. Again, not great but not a killer.

No, the real issue came when he put the ball in play. In 2016, the now-31-year-old posted a .186 Isolated Power and a .249 batting average on balls in play compared to marks of .199 and .285, respectively, over his career. The hope is that this decline is bad luck.

Fortunately, that looks to mostly be the case. When you compare his batted ball data against righties in 2016 versus those of his entire career, you’ll notice few differences. He actually hit more line drives last year than over the course of his career (per Fangraphs), and he hit fewer ground balls. The line drives should help his BABIP and the lack of grounders should help the power. Furthermore, his hard hit rate was actually slightly higher last year. The one mark against him is that he pulled the ball a bit more last year. That’s a bad trend considering how much smarter defenses are getting, and one that could partially explain the drop in BABIP.

There is a little bit of bad news in terms of raw numbers, though. While hitting in Texas isn’t quite as easy as it used to be, it’s still an improvement over Fenway for left handed hitters. At least, in terms of hitting home runs it is. While Moreland will likely hit a few more doubles at Fenway than he would have at Globe Life, the assumed decrease in home runs will work to counteract any positive regression in overall power. On the other hand, it could be a little bit easier for him to sneak singles in, although probably not to any significant effect.

Even with the park change, though, there’s little to suggest that 2016 marked the beginning of the end of Moreland being a good hitter against right-handed pitchers. While everyone would love for him to get back to those 2015 splits, that’s likely not in the cards either. He’s not a Chris Young-type of platoon player where he mashes the opposite-handed pitcher. Instead, despite what he showed last year, Moreland should be an adequate and steady presence against right-handed arms. It’s far from David Ortiz, but it’ll do.