It was not the weekend we were really expecting or hoping for in Oakland, as the red-hot Red Sox lineup was shut down for a couple days in a row and the team dropped their first series in a row. Despite some jokes on the website known as twitter dot com, I don’t think there is anyone out there that is seriously suggesting that this is much beyond a blip on the radar for these hitters. There are good hitters in this lineup who have been standing out more often than not, most notably including Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez and J.D. Martinez. At least, those are the most notable everyday bats. Mitch Moreland has been just as good (or at least almost as good) as any of those guys in a less-than-everyday role, taking advantage of every chance he gets from Alex Cora. The first baseman was particularly impressive on this west coast trip on which the Red Sox finished with a 4-2 record. This is all notable to me, because I was among those who were down on the signing. Generally, we can’t make too many assumptions about a player on April 23, but I think I’m ready to say I was wrong about this one.
Looking back, though I think I was pretty obviously wrong about Moreland’s skill level and his fit with this roster, the reasons for my feelings still make sense to me. I thought we were giving too much credit to his foot injury last year for causing his late-season slide that ended up making him finish the year as a league-average hitter. After all, that’s essentially what he had been his entire career, so it seemed like a convenient excuse to explain how he got to where he’s always been. Furthermore, I didn’t really understand bringing in Moreland when they still had Ramirez, and I am not going to sit here and lie to you I feel pretty good about being a Hanley Believer this winter. This isn’t about that, though. Before the injury last season Moreland seemed like a strong fit at Fenway Park and just looked like a better hitter than his Texas numbers suggested. His foot is healthy again, and he’s looking an awful lot like he did pre-injury in 2017.
We’re only talking about 16 games and 49 plate appearances, so obviously we have to temper our excitement a little bit. Really, this is more about how down I was on him before the season than the specific extent of his performance to this point. Still, that performance has been great. The first baseman is hitting .349/.408/.605 to start the year, good for a 171 wRC+ that puts him 71 percent better than the league-average hitter. Clearly, he’s been helped by being more of a role player this year as Cora has been able to pick his spots and find the best games in which Moreland has the best chance to succeed. To the player’s credit, though, he’s succeeded in those spots and there are some early-season numbers that are very encouraging for the long haul.
The first, unsurprisingly given the themes around this lineup all year to this point, is his plate discipline. Like just about everyone else in a Red Sox uniform this month, Moreland has been much more aggressive on pitches in the zone this season, swinging at 76 percent of those pitches so far. That rate is seven percentage points higher than last year’s and would be a new career-high for the first baseman. He’s doing this while swinging at a career-low 28 percent of pitches out of the zone and making contact on a career-high 93 percent of pitches in the zone. That combination is, scientifically speaking, sexy, and it is going to lead to great numbers. For Moreland it means far and away the best plate discipline numbers of his career with a 10 percent walk rate (his career rate is 8 percent) and a 14 percent strikeout rate (21 percent career rate). Those numbers aren’t going to stay this good, but there’s a ton of room for regression while still posting career bests. The walk rate is actually similar to last year and could stick around that same rate, and while the strikeout rate will rise he could very well stay below 20 percent for the first time since 2012.
In addition to the plate discipline, Moreland has been great when he’s put the ball in play as well. Of his 15 hits to start the year, seven have gone for extra bases and he’s posted a .256 Isolated Power along with a .371 batting average on balls in play. Again, these numbers are not going to stay like this all year — particularly that BABIP — but as with the plate discipline there are positive signs here. That aggressive approach on pitches in the zone contributes here as well as Moreland is making a ton of his contact on good pitches to hit. In fact, take a look below at the zone plot of his swings so far this year. He is attacking pitches on which he can get his hands extended and really barrel up the ball, and it’s clearly working.
In addition to the aggressive approach, Moreland also seems to be buying into the launch angle adjustment as well, hitting ground balls less than 40 percent of the time for the first time since his rookie year. These balls in the air have also come with good contact quality, as he has a hard-hit rate above 40 percent and a soft-hit rate below 10 percent.
To summarize, Moreland is firing on all cylinders right now and has been a huge asset to the lineup whenever he’s been in there. It will be interesting to see whether or not Cora ups his playing time or keeps trying to pick the right spots to utilize him, but it’s clear that Moreland is buying in to what the coaching staff is selling, and it’s working wonders. Again, there is going to be regression here; Moreland hasn’t turned into an MVP candidate. That being said, there are enough positive adjustments here to believe that he is going to be a good hitter all year if he can stay healthy, and there’s enough here for me to say that I was wrong about the signing this winter. Having Moreland on this roster is a big boon, and Cora seems to be using him well.