Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Mitch Moreland.
The Question: Is it fair and/or reasonable to expect Mitch Moreland to perform like he did in 2017 before he injured his toe?
We all remember how bad the Red Sox offense was for stretches last season. Even though they were able to stay relatively close to the top of the league in terms of runs scored — and that is the goal of the game — the overall production at the plate did not really match that placement in the standings. It was a frustrating group that, by and large, the team won in spite of. The reasons were pretty clear while they were happening. The rotation was awesome, particularly Chris Sale and to a lesser extent Drew Pomeranz at the top. The bullpen was bananas, particularly with Craig Kimbrel and everyone pitching out of their skulls in extra innings. The offense also found someone to carry them through different points of the year. It’s easy to remember the end of the season, for example, when Eduardo Nuñez and Rafael Devers were put on the roster and immediately provided a noticeable spark. It’s easier to forget what happened before that, though, when the Red Sox were still winning games. For the first few months of the year, it was Mitch Moreland coming through whenever the team needed a big hit.
For as well as Moreland played early in the year — and we’ll get into that a bit more later — his end-of-season numbers were the underwhelmingly fine numbers that have come to be expected from the first baseman over his career. By the end of the year, Moreland had posted a 99 wRC+, which essentially made him an exactly league-average hitter. There’s at least some possibility that health was the reason for the difference between his early-season performance and his end-of-season numbers. Moreland was hit in the foot with a pitch in mid-June, a HBP that ended up fracturing his toe. He played through the injury, but it’s fair to expect a human would be worse at the physical activity he does for work when one of his toes is not all together.
It’s my personal opinion that we tend to lean on injury excuses a little too much when explaining downturns in performance — everyone is banged up by the middle of the year — but even I’ll acknowledge there are different levels of being banged up. There is also a pretty clear dropoff in performance that starts pretty much from the day Moreland was hit. Through June 13 — the day he was hit in the foot — the first baseman was hitting .285/.382/.495 for a 128 wRC+, meaning he was 28 percent better than the league-average hitter. For context, Buster Posey and Khris Davis finished the year with 128 wRC+’s. From June 14 onward, Moreland hit just .218/.284/.405 for a 76 wRC+, meaning he was 24 percent worse than the league-average hitter. Again, for context, Maikel Franco and Carlos Beltran finished 2017 with 76 wRC+’s and were tied as the seventh-worst hitters to qualify for the batting title. So, yeah, it was a stark difference and he never matched the OPS he had at the day of his injury. I’m fully willing to say the toe injury certainly had some impact on how he performed the rest of the year and thus his end-of-season numbers, but I think it’s still fair to wonder just how much of that pre-June 14 performance can be expected moving forward.
There are a few things that stand out with Moreland in that first half that go against the rest of his career. We’ll start with the power, though that’s actually not a major outlier. In his pre-injury run, the lefty posted a .210 ISO (AVG - SLG), which would be a career-high over a full season. However, he’s also been around a .200 ISO hitter for much of his career and there was a notable power boom across the league in 2017. Furthermore, his home-run-to-flyball ratio was actually lower than it had been in the recent past and he made up for that by hitting doubles off the Monster and into the right-center field gap at Fenway. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Moreland to continue as a slightly-over-.200 ISO hitter moving forward, particularly if he’s mostly facing right-handed pitching (Moreland posted a 133 wRC+ against righties before the injury).
The two big outliers for Moreland in that monster run to start the year were in terms of drawing walks and success on balls in play. Prior to coming to the Red Sox, Moreland generally drew walks in around seven percent of his plate appearances, but during this run he walked in over 12 percent. I would certainly expect that rate to fall back closer to a league-average eight percent moving forward. The BABIP, meanwhile, exploded to .351 before the injury despite Moreland generally posting BABIPs around .300. Moreland did make a ton of hard contact during this run — he posted a hard-hit rate over 40 percent, per Fangraphs — and he hit a bunch of line drives. He’s not going to continue to post a .351 BABIP even when fully healthy in 2018, but one could see him putting up a mark a little above .300 with the same kind of batted ball profile.
I think it’s pretty clear that Moreland won’t be quite as good in 2018 as he was before he fractured his toe in 2017, but he doesn’t really have to be. While Boston needed that performance to carry the offense at times last year, that shouldn’t be the case in the coming season. That being said, there are reasons to be comfortable with a healthy Moreland. If he can get most of his playing time against righties, he has a built-in advantage. Combine that with the fact that he really showed he could take advantage of Fenway’s dimensions and there’s reason to believe he can be a safely above-average hitter in 2018, which is a nice piece to have coming off the bench and splitting time with Hanley Ramirez.