Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Mitch Moreland.
2019 in one sentence
Mitch Moreland had his best year to date with the Red Sox on a per-game basis but also played less than any other season.
The biggest reason this was Moreland’s best season on a rate basis was the reason 2019 turned into a career year for a lot of hitters: The power numbers. Home runs were obviously way up all around the league, though Moreland isn’t the type of guy who you think of when you think of the guys who were most impacted by the juiced ball. He is a big first baseman who has always been able to hit homers, so it seems like he should always put up good power numbers. However, despite that feeling — which maybe is unique to me! — he generally finishes with an Isolated Power a bit below .200. This past year, he finished with a career-high mark of .255. That was the big reason he was also able to post a near career high with a 112 wRC+. (He had a 117 wRC+ in 2015 with Texas.)
It goes without saying that the ball played a big role here, with the league-average ISO climbing from .161 to .183 from 2018 to 2019. On top of that, Moreland hit the ball softly at a lower rate than ever before and pulled the ball at a career-high rate.
The power was the big season-long trend that carried the year for Moreland, but when I think of his 2019 I will think of that stretch at the beginning of the year. This was a horrible time for the team as a whole, but if you haven’t blocked those few weeks out of your mind you likely remember that Moreland just seemed to come up with the big hit every time it was needed. In fact, that really stuck around all year. While he finished with a wRC+ of just 96 in low-leverage situations, that number climbed to 117 in medium leverage and 155 in high leverage. That’s not necessarily a sustainable skill, of course, but Moreland came through in big spots all year.
He also came through when he had the platoon advantage. That’s not exactly ideal who has been a full-time player for much of his career, but his performance against righties was a boon to this lineup. With 82 percent of his plate appearances coming in these situations, Moreland hit a whopping .262/.338/.549 for a 125 wRC+. His strikeout rate was down to 20 percent, his walk rate was up at 10 percent and his ISO was way up at .287. For a team with Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec, a guy who can hit righties like this is the type of player who could feasibly be back. But more on that in a bit.
We ended the last section with Moreland’s performance against righties, and now we start the bad news section with the performance against lefties. Moreland was a true platoon player in 2019, at least in terms of performance. While he was great against righties, he was borderline unusable against lefties. We’re only talking about 54 plate appearances here so take the numbers with a grain of salt, but he hit just .204/.283/.315 for a 56 wRC+. He struck out nearly a third of the time, walked at a rate below the league-average and just four of his 11 hits went for extra bases, with three of those being doubles. These issues were only exacerbated by conditions out of Moreland’s control. The team’s strategy coming into the year was to have Moreland and Steve Pearce platoon, but with the latter barely playing and struggling mightily when he did, Moreland being better against lefties would have been a nice bonus for the Red Sox.
The first baseman was also incredibly easy to plan against, which is probably easier said than done but still not a major challenge for today’s advanced scouts. For one thing, he was a pull machine and therefore easier to defend. As I mentioned above, pull-heavy approaches can lead to more power but they can also lead to more outs. For all of his balls in play (this doesn’t count home runs) he had a wRC+ of just 57 with the shift on. It’s not quite this bad, but at times it feels like home run or bust with the shift on for Moreland.
On top of that, he was really bad against anything other than fastballs. Per Baseball Savant, Moreland was great against heaters with a .410 expected wOBA and a .411 actual wOBA. However, those numbers were .269 and .262, respectively, against breaking balls and .273 and .302 against offspeed pitches. He still got fastballs nearly 56 percent of the time, but that speaks more to the talent around him than anything else.
Finally, there’s the issue of playing time. While this was Moreland’s best season on a rate-basis with the Red Sox, he was still less than a one-win player on FanGraphs thanks to playing in just 91 games. That’s just not a difference-making player, and while I think he was a bit more valuable given his performance in the most important spots, the Red Sox could’ve used him more. This was Moreland’s second straight season playing in fewer than 130 games after two straight seasons with at least 500 plate appearances.
The Big Question
One of the calling cards for Moreland throughout his career before 2019, including his time with the Rangers, was that he would get markedly worse in the second half of a year. That wasn’t the case this year, as his production stayed mostly consistent as the year went on. Of course, he missed a big chunk of time in the middle of the year so he had a built-in period of rest before he would typically see a dropoff in performance.
I alluded to this above, but Moreland could be a fit in 2020. He is currently on the free agent market, but there are a lot of mid-tier first basemen who hit from the left side so someone is likely to be left standing when the music stops. I think Moreland would like a bigger role than the one Boston is likely to offer this winter, but a left-handed bat would very much suit their needs and Moreland’s market could crater enough that a deal would make sense for both sides.