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 wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Tzu-Wei Lin.
The Season in a Sentence
Tzu-Wei Lin was far from the most important player on the 2018 Red Sox, but his presence of depth was always important and he played well in the major-league chances he did get.
Just by looking at Lin and knowing that he is mostly an up-the-middle player, there are some assumptions one could reasonably make about his game. Given his smaller stature and thinner frame, it’s expected that he is more of a defense and speed oriented player who could single his way to a solid batting line. That’s not unfair, and has mostly been him over his career. However, he showed some unprecedented pop both in the majors and in Triple-A in 2018. Coming off his 2017 breakout, he showed even more improvement by posting a .141 Isolated Power in 302 Triple-A plate appearances and a .169 ISO in 73 major-league plate appearances. Now, those numbers don’t really jump off the page, particularly in the modern launch angle era of the game, but context matters. Prior to 2018, Lin had only posted an ISO over .100 once in his six professional seasons, and that came in a 184-plate appearances stint at Double-A last year. This was a different kind of Lin that stuck around pretty much all year, and it was nice to see.
Sticking with a similar part of his game, Lin’s general quality of contact was fantastic all year long. That’s not super surprising given the uptick in power and the relative consistency of that uptick, but it’s still worth mentioning. Along with the ISO’s that broke from his career norms, Lin was posting strong batting averages on balls in play. Although some of those numbers are simply good luck, and another portion is due to minor-league defense, Lin deserves credit here. In the majors, according to Fangraphs’ batted ball numbers, he hit the ball hard over 41 percent of the time (league-average is 35 percent) and hit line drives 27 percent of the time. Granted, these come over a very small sample so a grain of salt should be taken, but it’s worth mentioning his line drive rate stuck through his Triple-A stint as well. Hard-hit rates aren’t available in the minors. Combine the line drives and his above-average athleticism and you get a recipe for strong BABIPs. Lin posted a .385 BABIP in Pawtucket and a .319 mark in Boston.
Finally, we move away from the offense and look at the defense, which has always been the calling card for Lin. Fangraphs has him providing negative value with the glove in the majors, but given the size of the sample I think that can be ignored. What’s most important for Lin at this point is to build as much versatility as possible. Even with the strides he has made with the bat, his future role is off a major-league bench, and the more positions he can play the more value he’ll bring to his future team. Lin didn’t play a ton of positions this year, but he did get time at shortstop (his natural position) and center field. It’s the outfield that is so important. We have seen him enough to know he can be at least passable all around the infield, and that he continues to get time in center field means he could be able to play all around the outfield as well. If that sticks, Lin becomes a true super utility player and has legitimate value in the majors as long as his bat avoids becoming a black hole.
As Lin’s power and general quality of contact has improved, we’ve seen a backslide in his plate discipline as a result. It’s not terribly surprising to see a worse overall approach at the plate as a player starts to hit for more power, but it doesn’t make it much easier to swallow. Over his professional career, the utility man has always been able to walk at a high clip while also striking out at a rate well below the league average. That wasn’t the case in 2018. In Triple-A, where he spent most of his time, he walked just 7.6 percent of the time while he struck out 21.2 percent of the time. It was a version of Lin we’ve almost never seen. In his short major-league stint, to his credit, his walk rate did creep up above 11 percent, but he also struck out 23 percent of the time. If Lin can keep up the power and BABIP, he can survive with these less-than-stellar plate discipline numbers, particularly as a bench player with his versatility. That’s betting big on relatively new developments in terms of contact quality, though.
Lin also wasn’t the kind of baserunner we’ve grown accustomed to over his professional career. Now, without seeing him everyday (since most of his games were in the minors) it’s hard to know if this was simply a team strategy thing or something had changed with Lin. The 24-year-old (he’ll be 25 in February) had been a double-digit steals guy throughout his professional career, but this year he only swiped three bases, with all of them coming in Triple-A. In fact, Fangraphs rated him as a negative on the bases in the majors, though again the sample is very small. Even worse, he was caught more often than he was successful. Lin has never been a true burner, but as we talked about above the amount of versatility he has is key to his value. That doesn’t just mean defense, and if he can be a true pinch running asset that will only help him. He took a step back in that area in 2018.
The Big Question
It was a little while ago now, but Lin absolutely came out of nowhere in 2017 to be a legitimate major-league depth piece. He exploded in Double-A to start the year after never showing any upside with the bat previously in his professional career, and as the Red Sox were decimated by injury and underperformance in the infield that year he got a shocking call-up to the bigs. Given how surprising the surge in performance was, it was only natural to think there was at least a chance it was a fluke, but Lin proved the strides he made at the plate were very real. Again, he’s probably not going to be a starter in the majors, particularly on a good team, but prior to 2017 he was very likely not even a major leaguer. Now he should have a solid career as a bench player after he continued to improve at the plate in 2018.
The Year Ahead
Lin is expected to serve in a similar role in 2019 to the one he served in 2018. That’s not great news for the player, who likely feels he’s earned a real chance at sticking on a major-league roster all year. He’s probably right, but the Red Sox aren’t in a position to make that happen, and they also aren’t in a position to trade him to a team that will. Lin’s best chance at real time depends on the health of guys like Dustin Pedroia and Marco Hernandez, which may actually be good news for Lin. The good news for him is that this is his final year with a minor-league option, so this year is just about maintaining value so he can be in a position to take a roster spot with someone in 2020.