By: Chris Larson
When you think of the Boston Red Sox, you typically think of guys like Chris Sale, David Price, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Craig Kimbrel. While all five of those guys are talented in their own way and bring something to the Red Sox 25-man roster, there are other guys who continue to provide an enormous amount of value to the Red Sox offense with little to no credit.
One of those guys happens to be first baseman, Mitch Moreland, who is having himself a terrific season that has seemingly gone unnoticed up to this point. Moreland, who turned 32 last September, signed a two-year, $13 million dollar free agent deal with the Boston Red Sox over the winter. Of course, the deal was a reunion with Boston as Moreland played for the team last year as well.
At the time of the signing, there were many people around baseball that were questioning if the Boston Red Sox did the right thing or if they had invested too much money into someone that might have already been over the hump. After all, Moreland finished last season with a .246 batting average and 120 strikeouts over the span of 576 plate appearances. However, up until this point, it seems as though that those, who were in doubt of the deal at the time, have been proven wrong and Moreland is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence season.
You see, over the span of Moreland's 9-year MLB career, he has never had a season where he finished with a batting average above .300 or a slugging percentage above .600 and could be on pace to have the best season of his career. Heading into play today, Moreland is currently batting: .312/.379/.632 over 140 plate appearances with 39 hits, 12 doubles, 2 triples, 8 home runs, 27 RBI, 14 walks, and 28 strikeouts. When you add all of that together, it results in an Offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR) value of 1.5 so far and a Runs Better Than Average (RAA) value of 8. When looking at RAA, it measures how much better a player is offensively compared to the average league wide player at the same position. This is the first time in Moreland's career that he has had a RAA value that high.
When you expand things out to the rest of the league, Moreland currently ranks 4th among first baseman in baseball in Isolated Power (ISO) with a value of .320, comes in fourth in Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) (.423), and is fourth in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) (168). Those rankings are among all first baseman, qualified and non-qualified, as Moreland was primarily used as a part-time player when, Hanley Ramirez was still with the Red Sox squad, but has since seen an uptick in his playing time at first base, which is one of the reasons the Red Sox likely decided to designate Ramirez for assignment.
Looking at those three categories last season for comparison's sake, the results are much more disappointing for Moreland last season compared to this year. Among qualified and non-qualified first baseman, in Isolated Power (ISO), Moreland ranked 34th (.197) last year, was tied 35th in Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) (.326), and was tied 32nd in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) (98). It's almost ironic to see a player in their almost mid-30s see an uptick in all three of those offensive categories, but it's happening for Moreland.
To try to gain a better understanding of what could have changed in Moreland's swing and approach at the plate, let's take a look at his plate discipline stats for this year compared to last. Not much has changed, but Moreland is swinging in the zone more often (73.6% of the time this year compared to 69.3% last year) and is taking fewer first pitches as strikes (53.7% last year compared to 51.4% of the time this season). On the other hand, Moreland has seen a slight uptick in his swing and miss percentage (11.1% last year compared to 11.5% this year) and a slight increase in the number of pitches that he is swinging at outside of the zone (30.2% last season compared to 31.2% this year). However, Moreland is making more contact this season compared to last (76.4% versus 75.7%) and has really seen that contact come within the zone (87.4% this year compared to 85.6% of the time last season).
Furthermore, here is a chart illustrating Moreland's pull%, centerfield%, and opposite field% from last season compared to this year.
In the first column, you will notice that Moreland is pulling the ball much more this season compared to last. In the second column, it illustrates how Moreland is hitting the ball to centerfield much less and in the third, shows that Moreland isn't going oppo as much as he did last year. Essentially, Mitch Moreland has transformed himself from an average hitter to an extreme pull hitter within the matter of a single season.
In addition to the impressive offense, Mitch Moreland has done very well in the fielding department as well. It might not be illustrated by his Defensive rating value of -1.1, but he has an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 1.3, which ties him 6th, with Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins, among qualified and non-qualified first baseman. Furthermore, through 287 innings of work, Moreland has yet to make an error at first base, which gives him a perfect fielding percentage over that sample of work. Over Moreland's entire 9-year MLB career over the course of 6748.2 innings, Moreland has only committed 27 errors, which gives him a career .996 fielding percentage, making him one of the more elite defenders in the game over that span.
For the Red Sox, the offensive value that Moreland has brought thus far has been a welcome sight and only helped to strengthen an already potent lineup. The best part is that Boston is receiving all of this offense for a very affordable rate ($6.5 million this year and next) and that is something that many likely didn't see happening when the deal was first agreed to this past off season. As with any hitter, it has yet to be seen if Moreland can continue to put up impressive numbers, especially given that he will be 33 in September, but based on the signs so far, everything is encouraging and could help to dilute the argument, that players no longer provide a lot of value to their team after their age 30 season.