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2020 in Review: Tzu-Wei Lin

Perhaps the last we’ll see of the utility player.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. 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 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this listT. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Tzu-Wei Lin.

2020 in one sentence

Tzu-Wei Lin continued to serve as emergency depth without being able to impress in what was perhaps his last chance at solidifying himself as a major-leaguer.

The Positives

There really wasn’t a whole lot of positives to boast about for Lin, who as I said may have just gotten his last chance in a major-league role. The utility man was, unsurprisingly, used sparingly over the season, receiving only 57 plate appearances over the 60-game campaign. And while the overall numbers and performance was bad, he did continue to provide his number one most valuable asset: His versatility. For all of the issues at the plate, Lin can still play all over the diamond, and play good defense at those spots. He’s a natural shortstop and is smoothest in those middle infield spots, but he’s been playing in the outfield for a few years as well. His athleticism has allowed him to play in all three spots at times. He even got to pitch this season, as pictured above, though that didn’t exactly go so well.

And on top of the defensive versatility, Lin has also proven to be a good runner to bring off the bench late in games. He doesn’t have burning speed like career pinch runners such as Terrence Gore and Quintin Berry, but for a Red Sox team that has lacked speed on their bench for a few years now, Lin has been a nice option. He consistently grades out as a positive base runner due to his ability to take extra bases at a high rate. These are not skills that will give a player any sort of significant role in the majors, but they are nice skills to have on a contending team needing some extra depth on the bench.

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Negatives

The issue for Lin as he looks to stick on benches for at least a few more years is that he hasn’t been able to prove he can consistently hit in the majors. After his breakout season in the minors in 2017, he has had a couple of seasons in which he hit at the highest level, albeit in part-time roles. He finished 2017 with a 93 wRC+ and improved upon that in 2018 to finish with a mark of 100. The last two seasons have been a bit rougher, with this past season ending with a -12 mark, meaning he was more than 100 percent worse than the league-average hitter.

Granted, the sample size here is small enough (57 plate appearances) that we certainly can’t call that a true-talent, but the struggles were eye-opening. In the past, Lin has at least been able to draw some walks and get on base a little bit. That did not happen this past season as he started to chase more pitches out of the zone. A batter can get away with chasing bad pitches at times if they either make a lot of contact or hit for a lot of power. Lin does neither of those things, and thus has a thin line to walk with his plate discipline. In those two initial strong seasons referenced above, he carried walk rates in the double digits.

Lin also continued a troubling trend of striking out far too much. This had not been much of an issue for him in the early parts of his minor-league career. For a long time, Lin looked like a prototypical utility player who could play good defense, run, and put the ball in play. Even when he broke out in Double-A in 2017, he struck out only 15 percent of the time. As soon as he reached the majors, though, he struggled to adjust to major-league pitching. That culminated in a rate near 30 percent this past season. For a guy with a career Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) under .100, that won’t cut it. Again, it comes back to chasing too many bad pitches and failing to put them into play.

The Big Question

Can Tzu-Wei Lin stick with the Red Sox?

Well, in terms of the 2020 season the answer was yes. Lin entered this past season without minor-league options, so it wasn’t clear whether or not he would actually make it through the season without being put on waivers. He did, but that says more about the Red Sox’s lack of depth options than anything else. He also did miss some time in July with injury. The run with the organization ended after the season, though. He was outrighted to Triple-A in late-October and, according to Baseball America, became a minor-league free agent earlier this month.

Looking ahead to 2021

Lin is a free agent right now, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be back with the Red Sox. It is not at all uncommon to see minor-league free agents end up back in their original organization. And, as a depth option off of the 40-man roster, the Red Sox would likely welcome him back. However, the infield situation is becoming a bit more crowded, with C.J. Chatham, Jonathan Araúz and Jeter Downs already projected to be at Triple-A, not to mention Christian Arroyo and Yairo Muñoz in the majors. If Lin were to return, his role would likely be more of an outfielder. More likely is he tries to latch on in another organization, and a trip overseas to try and rebuild his value in a different league likely isn’t off the table either.