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2018 in Review: Mitch Moreland

It was another tale of two halves for the Red Sox first baseman.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

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 Mitch Moreland.

The Year in a Sentence

By the end of the year Mitch Moreland posted an exactly average statline at the plate, but with a hot first half and a brutal second half, he was basically everything except average.

The Positives

You can’t talk about the good in Mitch Moreland’s 2018 season without starting with....well, without starting with the start. After some (read: me) criticized the Red Sox’ decision to bring Moreland back on a two-year deal prior to the 2018 season, Moreland showed them (read: me) how dumb they are. At least, he did so in the first couple months of the year. The Red Sox got productions from their Capital-S Superstars all year, but they were a historically great team because at all times they had role players stepping up to take the offense to the next level. Moreland was that guy for April and May.

The veteran first baseman played in 41 games and received 144 plate appearances over the first couple months of the year, and he hit .302/.368/.612 for a 160 wRC+. For context, over the entire season that 160 mark would have made him the fifth best hitter in baseball sandwiched between Christian Yelich and Alex Bregman. Pretty good! Obviously it goes without saying that doing it over a full season is a lot more impressive than doing it over two months, but it still speaks to how impressive he was to start the year. It also speaks volumes that he performed so well the team was emboldened to cut bait with Hanley Ramirez and stick with Moreland the rest of the year, abandoning the platoon that was supposed to occupy first base all year.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Digging a little bit deeper, there were two areas of Moreland’s game that really stood out in this stretch and really all season. First and foremost, it was his plate discipline. Looking just at walks and strikeouts, it’s not all that different from the guy we saw in 2017. Moreland walked a little more but also struck out a little more this year. Overall it was a slight uptick, but nothing significant. Digging a little deeper, though, he clearly bought in to the smart while aggressive approach preached by the new coaching staff this season. Moreland swung at pitches out of the zone at a career-low rate (helping lead to the higher walk rate) but also swung at pitches in the zone at a career-high rate. He did strike out a bit more, of course, but he also made some really convincing contact.

Moreland also excelled at Fenway Park, which has always been the case. (At least for the two years he’s been here, ya know?) I know he’s had hits on the road, but when I close my eyes and picture a big Moreland hit as one is wont to do, I always see it at Fenway. When he first signed here from Texas, the case for it was always that his swing was built for Fenway and that has proven to be true. In 2018 he was significantly better at home than away, posting a 114 wRC+ in Boston and an 86 wRC+ away from home.

Finally, there is his defense at first base. Well, depending on what defensive metrics you’d prefer. By Defensive Runs Saved, he actually took a step back. By UZR, however, he took a major step forward. As someone who doesn’t pay a ton of attention to defensive metrics anyway, I would argue he still provides a positive to the infield defense. I’ve long been of the belief that the general baseball community underrates first base defense, and while the position is not as athletically demanding as other spots on the diamond it still can change games. The entire infield benefits from a strong presence at first base, and Moreland gives infielders the ability to breath a little easier knowing they don’t have to make picture-perfect throws every time. I’m not going to pretend I know how to quantify that, but it’s not nothing.

The Negatives

If we’re going to start the positives section by talking about the start of Moreland’s year, we have to start the negatives by talking about the end of it. Following a very similar pattern to that of 2017, Moreland got off to that hot start but then fell off in a big way as the year went on. Fortunately for him and the Red Sox, Steve Pearce was brought on and helped pick up the slack, but Moreland’s struggles didn’t go unnoticed. In all, over the last months of the year he hit .197/.291/.306 for a 59 wRC+. For context, that 59 wRC+ would make him the second worst qualified hitter in baseball, just barely beating out Alcides Ecobar who finished with a 60 wRC+. Fortunately for Moreland, Chris Davis did what he did to make sure he wouldn’t be number one.

Still, it was a really disappointing second half for the first baseman, who hit an extreme cold streak in July and never fully turned it back on. Moreland did strike out a bit more (while also walking a bit more), but the real issue was that he just totally lost the ability to make convincing contact after the All-Star break. Looking at his batted ball metrics (per Fangraphs) he saw significant drop-offs in: Hard-hit rate, pull-rate, home-run-to-fly-ball ratio and line drive rate. He was launching the ball, but that doesn’t do much if you aren’t hitting it with authority. Moreland was only completing half of the deal, and it showed in his numbers.

Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox

The Big Question

Can we expect pre-injury Mitch Moreland over a full season?

As alluded to above, Moreland’s 2017 season took a similar trajectory to that of 2018 in which he started off hot but faded as the year went on. After the season, much of that decline was blamed on a toe injury that he tried to play through. There was some optimism that Moreland could extend his 2017 first half throughout the entire season with good health. Unfortunately, that clearly didn’t happen. Now, Moreland did suffer a leg injury in 2018 that certainly didn’t help matters, but at this point I think we just accept that this is who Moreland is. He won’t necessarily follow this exact pattern year in and year out, but he’s a streaky hitter that eventually comes out to an average-ish hitter. For his contract, it’s fine even if it’s not exciting.

The Year Ahead

I guess I kind of gave it away at the end of the last section, huh? Moreland is going to be a legitimate part of the team’s plans in 2019, though he is going to have some company with Steve Pearce back in the fold. The conventional wisdom is that this will be a straight platoon with Moreland hitting righties and Pearce hitting lefties, but I suspect Pearce will get some of the at bats against righties as well. Still, Moreland will get every opportunity to get hot again and ride the streak as long as possible.