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Mitch Moreland’s approach is behind his early-season success

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It seems like it can be sustainable

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The numbers below are through the weekend series in Minnesota and do not include Tuesday’s game against the Brewers.

Mitch Moreland was an extremely boring offseason acquisition, particularly after all of the buildup prior to the signing about who would be signed to replace David Ortiz. After rumors of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, Moreland was something of a letdown. It didn’t help that his contract with the Red Sox just so happened to come immediately after the trades for Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg.

After he came aboard, there weren’t really any huge expectations for Moreland. The hope was that he’d tailor his swing to Fenway a bit and remain a slightly-above average bat towards the bottom of the lineup, but no one really expected him to be more than a bit part. In fact, before Hanley Ramirez hurt his shoulder in the spring, it was expected that he’d be in a multi-positional platoon with Chris Young. Moreland was supposed to be a defensive addition more than anything, and he was just around to keep the position warm until either Sam Travis was ready or the Red Sox decided to find another long-term option at the cold corner.

About five weeks into the season, it’s fair to say that those expectations have been surpassed. In fact, as outofleftfield pointed out on Tuesday, Moreland was selected as the team’s biggest surprise through the first month of the season by multiple community members and staff writers.

There’s a good reason this was the case. Through his first 130 plate appearances, the former Ranger is hitting .281/.369/.465, good for a 124 wRC+. The batting average, on-base percentage and wRC+ would all be career highs for the 31-year-old. Obviously, this is still a relatively small sample. We’ve seen players have hot months only to crater for the rest of the season. With that being said, there is some reason to believe that much of what we’re seeing from Moreland is for real, and there is even some room for improvement.

To put it simply: the first baseman’s approach has taken a massive step forward this season, and it’s improving his overall production at the plate. Most obviously, his plate discipline has improved. As of this writing, he is drawing walks in 11.5 percent of his plate appearances. Prior to this, he’s had one year with a walk rate above eight percent and has never eclipsed the nine percent mark. On the other side of things, he is striking out in just 20.8 percent of his plate appearances. This isn’t a huge deviation from his career rate, but it would be his lowest strikeout rate since 2012.

If you dig a little deeper into the plate discipline numbers, you’ll notice that some things really haven’t changed for Moreland this season. One would think that, with the huge increase in walk rate, the lefty would be taking more pitches this year. According to Baseball Prospectus, though, he is swinging at just about the same rate as last year and at a higher rate than over his career. He’s also swinging and missing more than ever, which doesn’t bode too well for his strikeout rate.

If you look at the pitches he’s swinging at, though, you’ll notice one key difference for Moreland this season. He’s not being more selective overall, but he’s swinging more at the right pitches in 2017. In terms of pitches out of the strike zone, he is swinging at roughly the same rate as he has in the past. On pitches in the strike zone, however, he’s as aggressive as ever. Right now, he’s swinging at a little over 70 percent of strikes. His previous career-high is just under 68 percent, which came last year, and his career rate is under 65 percent.

It gets more interesting when you look more closely at which pitches Moreland is offering at. Below are two zone plots, with the one on the left representing his swing rate for every different zone of the strike zone (and outside of it) from his pre-Red Sox career. On the right is the same plot, just from this season.

There is one big thing that stands out here. Moreland is avoiding pitches in on his hands this season. Looking at pitches off the inside corner of the plate, you see that his swing rates on those offerings has been lower this season than they were during his time with the Rangers. Meanwhile, the only section of the strike zone in which he is swinging significantly less is belt-high on the inner half of the plate.

It’s early enough in the season that this could be a complete coincidence, of course. We’re dealing with fewer than 20 pitches in each of the zones we are talking about here compared to at least 150 from the career sample. With that being said, there’s some reason to believe this could be a conscience decision. If you follow this and this link, you will see that Moreland often hits these inside pitches either straight into the ground or straight into the air. Either way, he wasn’t doing much damage.

The results can be seen not only in his overall numbers, but also in his batted ball data. Per Fangraphs, Moreland is hitting fewer ground balls and fewer pop ups than ever before. On the flip side, he’s boasting a career-high line drive rate and making hard contact more often than any other point in his career. He’s also using the whole field more effectively than he did with the Rangers, another nice side effect of laying off pitches on the inner half. Despite all this, he’s also carrying a home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of just 6.3 percent, a rate that doesn’t at all seem sustainable.

Moreland has been a massive surprise for the Red Sox lineup, and has been a big boost for a group that has had slumps from some of its biggest names. His approach at the plate seems to be a big reason why. Even if his walk rate doesn’t stay so high, he should continue to have success on balls in play if he continues approaching each plate appearance as he has to this point. Over his career, he’s failed to make good contact on inside pitches. Now, in 2017, Moreland is finding success simply by laying off them.