clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

One Big Question: Are Mitch Moreland’s second-half woes going to continue in 2019?

He just can’t seem to keep it going all year.

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Mitch Moreland.

The Question: Can Mitch Moreland stay consistently solid all year?

For the second consecutive season, the Red Sox are entering the season with a platoon of two veterans at first base as they continue to look for their long-term answer at the position. By all accounts it’s not going to be a strict platoon, to be fair, but generally speaking Mitch Moreland will get a good chunk of the at bats against righties and Steve Pearce will start against basically every lefty. The good news is it’ll be almost impossible for the short end of that platoon to go worse than last year when Hanley Ramirez was released just two months into the season. That subsequently left Moreland in a larger role than what he’s best suited for, if only for a short time as Pearce was a relatively early trade acquisition.

Still, it was the second straight year in which Moreland was forced into an everyday role for at least a partial season, and we know that’s not what he’s best suited for. More concerning was another trend that has lasted through both of his seasons wearing a Red Sox uniform, and one that can be frustrating to watch as a fan. Moreland has gotten off to fantastic starts in both seasons with Boston, but over the second half of the year his numbers have crashed back down to Earth.

If you ask an average Red Sox fan who watches most games what they think of Moreland, my guess is that their opinion would be pretty high. I mention this quite a bit, but first impressions are everything in life as well as in baseball fandom. In each year with Boston, Moreland has made a hell of a first impression to fans. At one point early last season I apologized for criticizing the decision to re-sign him the previous offseason. I stand by the sentiment, but I also admittedly got caught up in the first-half Moreland act.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

To be fair, the veteran lefty is a very solid player. We’re not talking about a Quad-A guy who is wildly overrated or anything like that. He’s been a roughly average hitter year in and year out, providing solid pop with improving patience and a strikeout rate that is more than manageable in the current environment around the league. That said, in each of his two years with Boston those positive first impressions have been followed by disappointing and, at times, ugly slumps.

Consider that last year, heading into the All-Star break, Moreland was hitting .278/.353/.500 for a 126 wRC+, a performance that was good enough to send him to his first career All-Star Game. That performance was largely buoyed by monster months of April and May, but he was still a bit above average in June as well. There was little to complain about in that first half. In the second half, things cratered to the tune of a .191/.277/.322 line for a 59 wRC+. Of the 240 players with at least 150 plate appearances in that second half, only six were worse than Moreland by wRC+. Furthermore, by Baseball-Reference’s tOPS+ that is set relative to a player’s overall OPS, Moreland’s second half was the sixth-worst in baseball last year.

This wasn’t a new issue for the first baseman either. He went through a similar trend in 2017 as well when he put up a 105 wRC+ in the first half and an 87 wRC+ in the second half. Obviously that different isn’t quite as stark, but it’s certainly noticeable. Over his entire nine-year career, Moreland has a 108 wRC+ prior to the All-Star break compared to a mark of 86 in the second half. These kinds of second-half slumps haven’t happened in literally every season of his career, but they’ve been much more commonplace than you’d like to see.

Obviously, the goal here is to try and figure out why this is happening. Speaking only of the two years in Boston, the obvious answer is health. Moreland has been banged up over the second half of each of the last two seasons, and each time he’s played through the pain at least for a bit. It’s clearly had an effect on his performance. This past year, Moreland suffered a freak knee injury on a sliding catch attempt in August and then was mostly relegated to pinch-hitting duties in the postseason due to a hamstring issue. He also battled knee soreness and back spasms in July. Two years ago, the veteran played through a broken toe for most of the second half.

You can’t totally discount the injuries’ affect on Moreland’s performance in the second half, of course, but you also can’t lay the blame entirely on them either. As I said, this is a career-long issue for the lefty, and if he’s getting hurt every year to have this kind of effect that is an issue in and of itself. Looking a little bit deeper into the splits, over his career the issue has been on balls in play. His strikeout and walk numbers are mostly static between halves, but his batting average on balls in play and power numbers both tend to drop significantly in the second half. Looking at Fangraphs’ batted ball numbers, however, there isn’t a big difference. He tends to struggle a bit more squaring up the ball with fewer line drives, more fly balls and more pop ups as well as a slightly lower hard-hit rate, but none of the changes are significant.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

With the batted ball numbers not really giving much of a clue, my next theory was that pitchers were just adjusting to Moreland as the year went on and he was struggling to re-adjust. It’s worth noting that, unlike the rest of his career, he did see some changes in strikeouts between halves, going from a rate of 20.6 percent to just under 25 percent. It’s not a major change, granted, but it’s something. Either way, there wasn’t any major evidence in adjustments being made. He has been shifted against a bit more in second halves over his career, but it’s a minor difference. Moreland is one of the most consistently-shifted players in the game regardless of what time of year it is. On top of that, he didn’t really see a difference in approach in terms of sequencing from opponents in the second half. Instead, he just stopped being able to make contact with offspeed pitches, which led to the big spike in strikeouts.

So, with all of this said and all of this ink spilled, I have no idea what to make of Moreland’s struggles. The injuries are the big thing, but again they aren’t everything and even if they were it would be a major problem. Looking ahead to this year, if the Red Sox are going to want to rely less on the top half of their lineup a big part of that will be their first base platoon. That means they’ll need Moreland to be something close to the best version of himself for a full season. Hopefully, Pearce will be productive all year and that in turn will allow more regular rest for Moreland. If that all happens, he should be less liable to break down after the All-Star break and more likely to provide real value for an entire season instead of just half of one.