Opinion

How can the Red Sox get Mitch Moreland more at-bats?

Mitch Moreland deserves more at-bats than Jackie Bradley Jr. and Hanley Ramirez

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (April 19, 2018 – Source: Jason O. Watson/Getty Images North America)

The general perception about Mitch Moreland, as a baseball player, is starting to change. Not all that long ago we, the people, saw a player with average offensive production and above-average defense at at a relatively unimportant position on the defensive spectrum. He inked a paltry (everything is relative) two-year, $13 million with the Boston Red Sox in the offseason and found himself out of the lineup on Opening Day. Those two things speak volumes to how Moreland was viewed as recently as a month ago. It was not as if people saw a valueless commodity, rather, the consensus was that Mitchy 2 Bags was a good bench-piece, but probably not much more on a fairly stacked Boston lineup.

I’ll let my senior quote, courtesy of Mad Men’s Don Draper, summarize what Moreland probably thought about the mainstream consensus of his baseball abilities before he changed it indefinitely.

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” – Mad Men’s Don Draper

For those who read my writing consistently, that is now the second Mad Men quote I have used on this site. If that is not a signal of future success, I do not know what is.

How awesome has Mitch Moreland been?

Yeah, Mitch Moreland is pretty freaking awesome right now and people are starting to take notice. I mean, the dude has churned an explosive .347 AVG/.407 OBP/.653 SLG slash line in 81 plate appearances, which provides him with an accompanying 181 wRC+. How does that not make you turn your head? In less than 100 trips to the plate in 2018, his fWAR is 0.9, compared to the 1.0 fWAR he posted in 576 trips in 2017.

In other words, he has been almost as valuable as he was last season in 1/7 (I did the math) of the opportunities at the plate. With such an extraordinary jump in production, a potential explanation is that he has been the recipient of some good fortune in the early-going of 2018. Well, I am here to debunk (partially) this hypothetical explanation.

To start, let’s look at Moreland’s wOBA (weighted on base average) and xwOBA (expected weighted on base average) this year. Before we begin, here is the definition of wOBA provided by Fangraphs.

Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. While batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage fall short in accuracy and scope, wOBA measures and captures offensive value more accurately and comprehensively.

Makes sense? It is important stat to grasp, especially when contextualizing a player’s (in this case, Moreland’s) offensive value. xwOBA, on the other hand, is what your wOBA should be purely based on your quality of contact and strikeout and walk numbers. It strips batted ball randomness out of the equation, acting as a better predictor of future performance. If Moreland were getting lucky, his xwOBA would likely be lower than his actual wOBA.

So, without further ado, the 32-year-old’s 2018 wOBA is .438 (6th in MLB among qualifiers) and his xwOBA is even better at .441 (14th in MLB among qualifiers). As mentioned in the previous paragraph, this means Moreland has actually been getting slightly (so very slightly) unlucky this year.  This illuminates that his offensive production has not been a fluke.

In fact, part of the reason I was internally such a big advocate of the Moreland signing was because of the discrepancy between his wOBA and xwOBA last season. While he compiled a decent .326 wOBA in 2017, his xWOBA was a much sexier .380. Moreover, the point differential between his xwOBA and wOBA was -.054. That difference trailed only Miguel Cabrera (-.073) among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances.

Based on his quality of contact and strikeout and walk numbers, Moreland should have been an infinitely more valuable player last season. As such, the fact he ranks 4th in wRC+ among players with at least 80 plate appearances through early May this year does not surprise me too much (although, let’s be honest, it’s pretty jaw-dropping).

Digging into the numbers

Yes, Moreland’s .357 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) this season is high relative to a regular hitter and his previous career norms, but the plate discipline profile is so encouraging that it negates the possible regression of the stat. To start, Moreland’s K% has dramatically fallen from 20.8% in 2017 to 14.8% this season. He is giving away less free outs and, considering K% tends to stabilize at 60 plate appearances, this is much more signal than noise.

Peaking under the hood, we see, like most Red Sox hitters, Moreland is swinging at a lot more pitches in the zone and less pitches out of the zone. According to Fangraphs plate discipline numbers, the left-handed swinger has increased his Z-Swing% (percent of pitches swung at in the strike zone) from 69.3% last year to 79.2% this year. Meanwhile, his O-Swing% (percent of pitches swung at outside of the strike zone) has dropped from 30.2% last year to 27.7% this year. So, basically, he is swinging at more hittable pitches and watching less-hittable pitches go for balls. Sounds like a good recipe for success.

Okay, so I think you all get the point. Moreland’s a better hitter this year and what he is doing seems to be legit, even if his stats start to regress slightly. At this point, there is no excuse to not have him in the lineup every day, but, here we are, and he has only found himself playing in 2 of the past 5 games. In the past 4 games he has played in, though, he is 10/17 with 3 homeruns.

You need this guy in your lineup because, at this point, he is a more valuable player than both Jackie Bradley Jr. and Hanley Ramirez, who are the players he can feasibly displace in the lineup.

Granted, Moreland has played in 24 of 34 games this year, accumulating 81 plate appearances, this season. Alex Cora has made a point of getting him in the lineup somewhat consistently. With that said, Jackie Bradley Jr. has participated in 32 games with 121 plate appearances and Hanley Ramirez has done so in 30 games with 134 plate appearances. I get the initial favoritism of HanRam and JBJ over Moreland, but it has become evident that Moreland should finish the year with more plate appearances than both these guys.

Starting Mitch Moreland over Jackie Bradley Jr.

The obvious, and perhaps pragmatic, solution to this would be letting JBJ take the role of above-average bench player. He could be a late-inning defensive replacement for J.D. Martinez, who would have to leave the DH position and play the outfield more frequently, and still start in a lot of the game because of Cora’s emphasis on resting players.

Considering the center fielder’s abysmal 47 wRC+ and -0.3 fWAR in 121 plate appearances, this would be gracefully accepted by the majority of fans. His offensive struggles over the past two seasons have been maddening to many and even superb defensive cannot salvage a 47 wRC+.

In this scenario, Ramirez would be featured as the primary designated hitter, while Benintendi would assume center field and Martinez would become a staple in left. Until Bradley Jr. can prove he can hit somewhat decently (and consistently), this is the intelligible option. However, it is not the only option.

Starting Mitch Moreland over Hanley Ramirez

Hanley Ramirez has been the three-hitter the majority of the year and has been lauded for the way he has played this season. In 134 plate appearances, he has been worth 0.5 fWAR and has compiled a 117 wRC+. Not only has his offensive value improved over last season, but so has his defensive and baserunning value. On the surface, he looks fine, but this Tweet by Red Sox Stats a couple of days ago made me pause.

So, HanRam’s xwOBA is considerably higher than the wOBA he has posted this year, meaning he probably has been getting a little unfortunate. Yet, if he is pounding 95+ mph on the ground, instead of the air, then they are not going to be nearly as valuable. For starters, those groundballs, even if they are rocketed on the ground, are more likely to be turned into out than a line drive or fly ball 95+ mph shot. In addition, they will almost never turn into extra-base hits, unlike a fly ball or line drive.

In terms of barrels per plate appearance (which is the ideal mixture launch angle and exit velocity on a batted ball) this season, Ramirez’s 6.0 number places 137th among hitters with at least 25 batted ball events. It is almost the epitome of an average Brls/PA score. For a guy who is perceived as a dynamic offensive player, yeah, that may change the perception. Do you want to hear something even more telling?

Jackie Bradley Jr., the chastised hitter, ranks 141th in the same category, with a 5.9 Brls/PA. 

Yes, that sentenced absolutely needed to be bolded. Look, Ramirez is a demonstrably better offensive player than JBJ, but, still, he has not as been good as most think.

In fact, Ramirez has not hit a homerun since April 14th. Small sample size caveat aside, he has been a below-average offensive player since this point, dropping off significantly since his blazing start. Here are some splits before and after the last long ball he launched.

PA AVG SLG wRC+ GB% BABIP
 Opening Day-April 14th 53 .362 .617 175 35.9% .389
 April 15th-May 7th 81 .254 .310 78 55.2% .310

Since April 15th, Ramirez has belted more than 50% of his batted balls into the ground, while all of his meaningful offensive stats have taken a recognizable step back relative to his first 50-some plate appearances. His BABIP has been more aligned with his career-norm in this recent sluggish stretch, indicating there was not a lack of luck for Ramirez. The power has been virtually non-existent and, for a proclaimed power hitter, that’s kind of a big deal.

It is certainly a small sample size, but so was his hot stretch. Combine the two stretches, you have an above-average bat, sure. As the above Tweet mentioned, however, he is going to need to lift the ball in the air to be more effective. If he can’t, well, the offensive stats may very well keep plummeting.

I mean, after a 2017 season where Ramirez presented a -0.4 fWAR and 94 wRC+, are we basing our trust in his offensive abilities in his 2016 season? Okay, fine. I agree he is not as bad of a hitter as he was in ’17, but if you are holding onto a sample from that long ago to influence your perception of him, then you have to be fair with your logic. In 2016, Jackie Bradley Jr. ran a 119 wRC+ and 5.3 fWAR en route to an All-Star appearance. In 2017, he was worth 2.2 fWAR, compared to Ramirez’s -0.4 fWAR.

I think you understand my syllogism. Well, I hope you do, anyway. Plus, people forget that if Ramirez eclipses 497 plate appearances this season, the 34-year-old’s $22 million option will kick in for 2019. Does the team want that financial commitment for next year with the inconsistent production he’s provided since he’s been in a Sox uniform? In the offseason, it appeared unfathomable that the Sox would let him get to that mark, but he is well on-pace to do so now. Considering how cheap bat-first players went for this past offseason (Mike Moustakas one-year, $6.5 mil, Logan Morrison one-year, $6.5 mil, Jay Bruce three-year, $39 million, etc.), $22 million is a steep price to pay for his services.

Ramirez has been a better player than Jackie Bradley Jr. this year, but there are some legitimate concerns with the way his offensive numbers are trending. Plus, you know, the looming $22 million price tag the Red Sox will have to pay if they keep letting him play almost every day. If he continues to play the way he has this season (117 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR), it is decidedly not worth it.

Further, if you start edging Ramirez out of the regular lineup, opposed to JBJ, then Martinez can happily slide back to DH. There is value in keeping him there.

Conclusion

Look, Cora has found a way to get all of these guys semi-consistent at-bats, so it’s not too much of an issue. Even so, Moreland deserves to be playing more consistently, as he is arguably one of the better hitters in baseball. This would mean less playing time for Ramirez and/or Bradley Jr, but if one had to be relegated from their starting spot, it is a close call, one which is influenced by a hefty $22 million vesting option.

More than likely, all three will end up with north of 300-400 plate appearances on the season. If I were manager, which I totally should not be, well, Ramirez may end up with the fewest at-bats of them all.

Advertisements