The Red Sox are, of course, an outstanding baseball team. They have the best record in baseball and are one of, if not the, best teams in franchise history. At least as far as regular season ball will go. Only time will tell how they’ll be viewed historically, but for now they’ve given us many more reasons to be happy than to be upset. Of course, the playoffs are a different beast, and teams need to be at peak performance in a high-variance environment against other elite teams around the league. With that in mind, the Red Sox certainly aren’t without their faults and question marks. Over the next few days we’ll take a look at some situations that need to be sorted out before we get to October, and today we’re going to start at first base. Specifically, we’ll wonder if it’s time to start looking in a different direction at the position.
There were a number of motivations behind the Hanley Ramirez cut back in the beginning of the season, and financials were almost certainly the largest motivating factor. However, the team also wasn’t lying when they said they wanted to get Mitch Moreland some more playing time. The lefty had earned it, and he made good on that extra time immediately. His first half was incredible and enough to earn him his first career All-Star berth. Everybody was feeling good about themselves. Since the break, however, Moreland has been awful, and while there have been a few strong moments here and there, he’s largely been a massive disappointment. Things have shown any signs of turning around, either, and they have to consider making a change.
Before we take a look at the other options, it’s useful to look at just how poorly things have gone of late for the current starter — or, at least, the current man on the long-end of the platoon — and what has caused the downturn. After posting a 125 wRC+ in the first half (meaning he was 25 percent better than the league-average hitter), Moreland has hit just .177/.246/.327 for a 47 wRC+. That means he’s been 53 percent worse than the league-average hitter, and makes him the 12th-worst hitter in baseball among the 253 players with at least 100 plate appearances in the second half. That’s...bad.
As far as the causes go, there are unsurprisingly downturns across the board for the lefty. His walk rate is down to about an average rate, which is fine but noticeable. His strikeout rate is up from about an average rate to about 25 percent, which again isn’t a huge increase but it makes a difference. More than the plate discipline, however, it’s been his quality of contact. His Isolated Power between halves has dropped from .222 to .150, and his batting average on balls in play has dropped from .319 to .200. That last number seems like luck, and it could be on some level, but it’s also just not hitting the ball well. Moreland has been hitting the ball on the ground more and more as the year has gone on, with his second-half rate up to 47 percent. That obviously takes away from power, and perhaps more importantly makes him a double play threat hitting behind guys like J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts.
On top of the ground balls, he’s just not hitting the ball on a line, with his line drive rate falling from 21 percent in the first half to 13 percent in the second half. Unsurprisingly, he’s also seen his hard-hit rate (per Fangraphs) fall from 38 percent to 31 percent and his pull rate has fallen from 46 percent to 30 percent. All of this points to one thing: He’s not hitting the ball with authority, and the eye test shows the same thing. The make matters even worse, Moreland isn’t showing signs of turning things around any time soon.
So, as we turn our eyes towards potential replacements, the first and most obvious candidate would be Moreland’s platoon partner, Steve Pearce. The midseason acquisition has fit in well with the Red Sox to be sure, though most of his time has come against left-handed pitching. On the season, including his time with the Blue Jays, the veteran has posted a 146 wRC+. That’s really good! The question becomes how well he’d do if he had to face more righties, because he’s boosted by having the platoon advantage in most of his starts. However, this season he has posted a solid 113 wRC+ against righties, and that’s with a .246 BABIP. Since coming to the Red Sox that wRC+ is just about the same at 107. Even over his career he’s been slightly above average against righties with a 102 wRC+. Given how comfortable he’s looked since coming to this team, those numbers and Moreland’s struggles, Pearce would likely be the number one choice to get more time at first base.
If the team would prefer to keep Pearce on the bench to use as a key late-game pinch hitter, however, they do have other options. The most logical would likely be either Brock Holt or Blake Swihart, each of whom have played some first base as super utility men. They aren’t exactly the kind of hitters you typically see at this position, of course, but they’ve both hit will in the second half and have been the types of hitters to keep rallies going and get it back to the power top of the lineup. The lack of power from both Holt and Swihart is certainly not ideal here, and particularly if you’re looking to replace the first-half version of Moreland, but both are swinging the bat well enough to at least consider the possibility.
Beyond Pearce, Holt and Swihart, there are a couple of more out-of-the-box solutions as well. One would be Brandon Phillips, who I honestly would not have even thought of had it not been for Alex Cora mentioning the possibility. The team is apparently going to give the veteran middle infielder some time at first base to increase his versatility. I’m not sure how realistic this possibility is, but Phillips made a hell of a first impression in his first game with the team last Wednesday and if they want to get him some playing time down the stretch this could be the easiest way to do it.
The other out-of-the-box possibility is Rafael Devers. We’ve heard about him potentially moving across the diamond at some point in his career, and while I don’t think this is the best long-term play, this could be the best move in the short-term. Eduardo Núñez has taken over as the team’s preferred third baseman for now and is playing better on both sides of the ball. Still, Devers’ upside at the plate remains mouthwatering, and if they want to give him time to hopefully get hot with the bat before the postseason, this could be the way to do it. That being said, it’s probably too late in the year to get him acclimated to a new position. Still, I had to throw it out there.
For as poorly as this weekend has gone, the Red Sox still have a cushion in the division. It’s certainly not time to cruise into the postseason and assume things are clinched, of course, but they do have a little leeway to try and figure some things out. One of those things would be first base, and they can take two paths for the rest of September. They can try to let Mitch Moreland figure it out, because they are at their best when Moreland is their starting first baseman hitting to his full potential. However, if he can’t do that quickly, they should change courses and figure out if they like Steve Pearce as an everyday player, and/or if the other options would prove to be good platoon partners with Pearce.