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 singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Mitch Moreland.
The Question: Can Mitch Moreland hit more against secondaries?
In a way that has sort of snuck up on me, Mitch Moreland has turned into something of a stalwart on this Red Sox roster as he enters his fourth season with the team. He’s obviously won a championship here, he’s developed mentor/mentee relationships with guys like Rafael Devers, he’s become a fan favorite with a notable nickname, and he’s now the elder statesman in the clubhouse as he enters his age-34 season. It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago that I was complaining about them signing him and then re-signing him, but we’re now at the point where it would kind of feel weird if he was in another uniform.
For all of the (read: my) hand-wringing about his signings in the past, he has mostly been a relatively steady process at the top of the bottom half of the lineup during his time here. Granted, he hasn’t always been consistent month-to-month and week-to-week, and there have been injuries that have slowed him down as well, but for the most part he’s not a star but also not a drain. I mean, even thinking back to the disaster that was last year, he was directly responsible for a large percentage of their few early-season wins. Moreland is a very capable role player who has grown into a fan favorite who is very easy to root for. At this point in my life, that’s a player I value as a fan.
It wasn’t always clear whether or not he was going to come back for 2020, as he was sitting on the free agent for much of this winter. Boston had a clear need for a left-handed first baseman, though, and it always makes sense to bring back the cheap, capable fan favorite, right? (stares longingly at Brock Holt) The Red Sox had potential starters in Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec there from the right side, but given their relative youth and inexperience, it made sense to bring in a complement. Moreland ended up being that guy.
As we look ahead to the coming season, it’s hard to expect anything too different from what we’ve seen in recent years. In fact, things could be set up for even better production, at least on a rate basis. Moreland isn’t expected to play quite as often this year in more of a strict platoon, but that should play well into skillset. He has always, of course, been much better against righties than lefties. Last year, for example, he finished the year with a 125 wRC+ against righties and a 56 mark against southpaws. In all three seasons in Boston, his wRC+ was at least average against righties and never even reached 90 against lefties.
So, assuming they are indeed able to stick to this platoon throughout the year, all signs point towards Moreland once again being a reliable contributor, albeit less than a star. However, things may not be quite as simple as just looking at his platoon splits and chalking it up as a win. Pitchers can always approach him differently, and frankly it’s weird that they haven’t done it yet in his career.
Moreland absolutely destroys fastballs. Last season, according to Baseball Savant, he averaged an exit velocity of 93.6 mph against fastballs and put up an expected wOBA of .414 and an actual wOBA of .414. The year before, those numbers were 92.8, .407, and .374, respectively. That is elite-level production, and it makes sense with my pea-brain memory, too. Thinking back to any given Mitch Moreland hit, or just forming them in my noggin, it seems that he is always driving the fastball.
So, that’s good! He kills fastball, which is the pitch that is overwhelming the most common in baseball. Unfortunately, he has never been very good at hitting, well, anything else. Consider that last season against breaking balls (again, per Baseball Savant) he posted an expected wOBA of .270 and an actual mark of .262 with an average exit velocity of 88.2 mph. In 2018, those numbers were .265, .252, and 90.8 mph, respectively. Similarly, those numbers were .278, .302, and 85.1 mph in 2019 against offspeed pitches and .288, .247, and 84.6 mph in 2018.
Now, it should probably go without saying that any hitter is going to make worse contact and just generally perform worse against breaking pitches and offspeed offerings compared to fastballs. They move a lot more and are generally thrown either on the edge of the zone or out of it, which clearly does not lend itself to hard contact.
On the other hand, a veteran who plays as much as Moreland probably needs to do better than this, because pitchers eventually are going to adjust. At least, one would think so. Pitchers have surely noticed this trend, and while it’s hard for most pitchers not to throw their fastball most of the time — it’s the easiest pitch with which to throw a strike, which I hear is pretty important — but when you have a guy who kills them so disproportionately like this, being able to change your style is huge. That did start to happen a bit last year, as Moreland saw the second lowest rate of fastballs of his career and the lowest of his tenure with the Red Sox.
I would not be surprised if that continued into the 2020 season as well. Given his steady track record against righties and the fact that he has become more disciplined in recent years, I’m expecting good, solid performance that will end up a little above-average by the end of the year in a part-time role. There is a path for improvement, though, despite him being a veteran who has seemingly turned into one of “they are who they are” kind of guys. It’s easier said than done for a 34-year-old to turn into a new man against breaking balls and offspeed pitches, but if Moreland can find a way he just might play a bigger role than we’re expecting.