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 Tzu-Wei Lin.
The Question: Was Tzu-Wei Lin’s unexpected breakout in 2017 just a flash in the pan or can he continue to make a major-league impact?
The theme of this site over the last week or so has seemingly been the back end of the roster and how the end of the bench will play out. Part of this is because that’s how this very series has played out with so many of the competitors being near each other in alphabetical order, and part of it is because it’s one of the few legitimately interesting things to watch in Red Sox camp this spring beyond simply looking at really good baseball players. The majority of this talk has, of course, revolved around Brock Holt and Deven Marrero with some good ol’ Blake Swihart discussion mixed in there. Then there is the acknowledgement of Eduardo Nuñez and Dustin Pedroia, who aren’t a part of the end-of-the-roster battle but certainly will have an impact on it. With all of that going on, Tzu-Wei Lin has been placed on the back-burner as an acknowledged piece but one who has virtually no chance of starting the year on the Opening Day roster. Even that position, though, is a far cry from where he was at this time last year, as Lin is coming off perhaps the biggest and most surprising breakout year in the entire organization. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if that massive leap was real.
Lin’s career to this point has really been a fascinating one. He was signed out of Taiwan by the Red Sox back in 2012 to a fairly substantial signing bonus of a little over $2 million, but he didn’t really do much to back that up for the start of his career. He slowly made his way through the system after being signed, starting in the GCL in that 2012 season and making his way to Portland to start the 2017 season. In between, he showed off solid athleticism and a good glove at shortstop that allowed him to hang in the organization through all those years. What he did not show, however, was an exciting bat. Instead, he regularly posted OPS’s in the .500s or .600s at every stop.
Then, all of a sudden, he broke out in a major way in 2017. Lin started hitting the ball with more authority and watched his OPS in Portland climb all the way to .870. He was so good, and the Red Sox infield situation had gotten so bad, that he earned himself a truly shocking call-up at the start of the summer where he once again showed real flashes at the plate. Lin only got 66 plate appearances in the bigs so obviously we can’t take too much away from this, but he did hit a very respectable .268/.369/.339 for a 94 wRC+. It’s a little below-average, but that’s miles ahead of what anyone could have reasonably expected from him given his track record. It should also be mentioned that he spent some time in Pawtucket after his initial promotion to the majors and was much worse at the plate with a .602 OPS.
Of course, that same track record calls into question the sustainability of his solid performance in the majors and the upside he showed as a 23-year-old in Portland. The biggest and most obvious detractor from the idea that he can sustain this performance is the batting average on balls in play. After posting BABIPs mostly below .300 through his minor-league career, he posted a .333 BABIP in Portland and a .385 mark in the majors in 2017. On the surface, that seems like a big fluke, and it very well may be. That said, he did seem to make much better contact in Portland and in the majors than he had at any previous point in his minor-league career and he has the athleticism to sport a slightly above-average BABIP. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see that quality of contact proving to be sustainable, particularly because it didn’t carry over into Pawtucket.
Despite the lack of optimism around his offense, there is still plenty to like about Lin as an organizational piece. Specifically, the baserunning and the defense. His skills on the bases won’t make him an elite piece by any means — we’re not talking about Billy Hamilton-lite here — but he has above-average speed and generally makes smart decisions on the base paths. One could certainly do worse as a pinch runner is all I’m saying. Furthermore, he has proven throughout his professional career that he can play an above-average shortstop and showed last year that he can pick it at the hot corner as well. The team has even gotten him some time in center field to enhance his versatility, and thus is value, some.
At the end of the day, if you got caught up in the “Linsanity” that swept Red Sox Nation last summer, you may be disappointed in the player that Lin ultimately proves to be. On the other hand, he does look like someone who should stick around in the majors and carve out a useful depth role on any team. Rosters need guys who can provide value off the bench, and Lin can do that with his glove and on the bases. His 2017 breakout may be exaggerated but that doesn’t mean he’s not a useful player on this year’s roster or a guy who can’t carve out a long-term role in the league.