Opinion

Is Mitch Moreland the hottest hitter in baseball?

Mitch Moreland is on fire right now

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (April 17, 2018 – Source: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America)

The Boston Red Sox are blazing hot, winning their eighth consecutive game Friday night. With the 7-3 victory over the Oakland Athletics, Boston propelled themselves to a 17-2 record, the best in MLB. In the contest, the Red Sox hit their 5th grand slam in 19 games, a significant improvement from their 0 grand slams in 162 games last year.

Mitch Moreland was the man to deliver the go-ahead grand salami in the top 6th, blasting his second homerun in the last three games. Amidst a lineup that has been the best in baseball, leading in runs scored (123) and wRC+ (132), it can be easy to overlook the Gold Glove first baseman. After all, Moreland is not even a regular starter, considered the number two first baseman on the depth chart.

Regardless, Moreland, who is known as Mitchy 2 Bags in some selective Twitter circles, has been on fire. Insert as many fire emojis in your head as you possibly can conceive and then add even more after that statement. Yes, it is early and he has only accumulated 45 plate appearances to date. With that said, if you look under the hood of the machine that is Mitch Moreland, there are reasons to suspect this production is the real deal.

Before we even to delve into the underlying numbers driving the production, let’s talk about what he has done thus far. It’s quite impressive.

Among hitters with at least 40 plate appearances, Moreland possesses the 21st-best wRC+ in baseball at 172. For those unaware of what wRC+ is, here is a succinct explanation from Fangraphs:

Similar to OPS+Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average after controlling for park effects.  League average for position players is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a 125 wRC+ means a player created 25% more runs than a league average hitter would have in the same number of plate appearances.

Essentially, Moreland has created runs 72% above the league average this season. Yeah, that sounds pretty good, right? On the same leaderboard, baseball’s finest Mike Trout is only a spot above Moreland, running a 174 wRC+. Anytime you’re close to Trout on an offensive leaderboard, it’s a good sign.

Further, the only Red Sox’ players with a better number are Mookie Betts (228 wRC+) and Xander Bogaerts (201 wRC+). He has been a more productive offensive player, when he’s been on the field, than J.D. Martinez (161 wRC+), Hanley Ramirez (152 wRC+) and Rafael Devers (127 wRC+) so far. He is sizzling.

He has compiled a robust .333 AVG/.400 OBP/.615 SLG slash line, getting on base a ridiculous amount of the time and hitting the ball for extraordinary power.

Even though it is very early, Moreland has notably cut his K% to 13.3% this season. This is a dude who has constantly posted K% over 20%. In fact, one has to travel back to 2012, when Bobby Valentine was the manager of the BoSox, to find a season where the left-handed slugger has churned a K% under 20%. Even in that season, he struck out 19.9% of the time. So, yes, the fact he has punched out less is a good thing. It is even better considering K% typically stabilizes at 60 plate appearances, which Moreland is fairly close to achieving. This is more than mere random variance.

The 32-year-old is also walking a higher percentage of the time than in the past. He has recorded an 11.1 BB% through 15 games played, which is his best number since his 2010 rookie season (14.5 BB%) with the Texas Rangers. Per Fangraphs, BB% stabilizes at 120 plate appearances so the sustainability of this is more dubious.

Anyway, let’s start getting under the hood here. Let’s look at some deeper number, courtesy of a fun table I have devised.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
2017 30.2% 69.3% 59.8% 85.6%
2018 27.4% 74.6% 61.5% 91.5%

Like most Red Sox hitters, Moreland is swinging at a lot more strikes while being less aggressive with balls outside the strike zone. This is a formula for success and it has seemingly been working in his favor. He is hitting remarkably more balls in the zone but is also hitting balls at a higher percentage of the time outside the zone. Better pitches are being swung at and he is making demonstrably more (and better) contact.

Moreland’s refined approach at the plate gives me hope that his improved offensive production is the real deal. Probably not at the 172 wRC+ level he is at right now, but certainly better than the 98 wRC+ he produced in ’17.

Hope blossoms even more vibrant when checking out his Statcast numbers. Among batters with a minimum of 25 batted balls event, Moreland’s average exit velocity of 93.8 mph ranks 12th in baseball, sandwiched between Yankees’ slugger Giancarlo Stanton (94.3 mph) and Aaron Judge (93.9 mph). J.D. Martinez is the only Red Sox with a higher average exit velocity than him.

Additionally, Moreland’s 8.9 barrel per plate appearance, which is the ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity, places a strong 43rd among qualifiers. He finds himself ahead of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Hanley Ramirez on this list.

Look, Moreland did not achieve his first hit of the season until April 8th but, since that point, he has produced an .800 slugging percentage and 241 wRC+. Among hitters with at least 30 plate appearances in that span, his .433 batting average is the best in baseball and his 241 wRC+ is the 4th-best.

With so much offensive thump in the Sox lineup, Moreland’s contribution to the team may be getting lost. Just be cognizant that Mitch Moreland is not just hot, but he is arguably the hottest hitter in baseball right now.

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