Explaining Mitch Moreland’s June struggles
Featured image courtesy of Zimbo.com: (June 14, 2018 – Source: Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images North America)
For most of the relatively early 2018 season, Mitch Moreland appeared to be one of the best hitters in the MLB. In fact, part of the decision to cut the marketable Hanley Ramirez was to shore up room for his bat. Through May 31st, the left-handed slugger compiled a blazing .302 AVG/.368 OBP/.612 SLG slash line in 144 plate appearances. After a sluggish first year in a Red Sox uniform, it seemed Moreland had figured something out. He had seemingly escaped the perception of being a mere league-average hitter. Then, the month of June got underway and it has not been pretty.
In 66 plate appearances in the month, Moreland has ran a .220 batting average and .642 OPS. His struggles against southpaws have become more pronounced, striking out 31.4% of the time against them and is now down to an 86 wRC+ versus same-sided pitching on the year. For the entirety of his big-league career, he has a .676 OPS against lefties, compared to a .788 OPS against righties. More than anything, this month has inherently posed an important question: does Moreland belong in the lineup against left-handed pitchers?
Well, unfortunately, Boston does not have great options to displace Moreland at first as a platoon partner. Even with his well-documented struggles against left-handers, he probably still is the best solution. At the very least, his defense is not pitcher-specific.
Anyway, perhaps the Red Sox try and find a partner for him at the trade deadline. This could neutralize some of Moreland’s offensive woes, which has seen him go 3-17 against lefties this month. Regardless of whether or not Moreland is an everyday player, the struggles at the plate have been against right and left-handed pitching in June.
His strikeout rate (24.1%) has soared a bit in the first official month of summer but his walk rate (10.6% in June) has gone up, as well. In a sense, these essentially cancel each other out. Plus, even if his plate discipline has had some negative regression for the month, it is so slight where it probably is not the underlying issue.
In terms of how he is getting pitched, there seems to be an evident shift in how he has been attacked in June compared to the first two months of 2018. Check out these heatmaps. The first one is from March 29th through May 31st and the second is June. Keep in mind Moreland is a left-handed hitter and these charts are from the catcher’s view. As such, he is batting from the right side of the chart.
March 29th-May 31st
There is a nice concentration of pitches all over this chart, but it seems pitchers started the year by trying to get him out with lower offerings that went away from him. He was seldom pitched up and was definitely seeing more pitches towards the outer-half of the plate.
The June heatmap should illuminate a conspicuous change in how he is being pitched. While he still is receiving baseballs low in the zone, there has been a clear shift towards the inner part of the plate, particularly the lower-right quadrant. Honestly, it seems pitchers are starting to diversify their location against the Red Sox’ middle-of-the-order bat. The bottom inside corner was virtually unused versus Moreland in the beginning of the season and now it is being exploited.
With a small sample size caveat in mind, take a look at how Moreland has fared in lieu of this new pitch-location strategy.
Those boxes represent his slugging percentage in each part of the zone for the month of June only. For this month, he has been pitched more low and in and he has simultaneously struggled to do damage in that location. It is still a paltry sample, though, but pitchers are adjusting to Moreland’s scorching start to the season and it has worked.
Oddly, the quality of contact Moreland has made on pitches this season is not noticeably different this month compared to his hot months. On the season, he boasts a 39.2 Hard-Contact% and in June that number has only fallen slightly to 37.2%. Meanwhile, he is actually hitting more flyballs and less groundballs in June compared to May and is hitting a higher percentage of line drives this month than in any month of the ’18 season. He is, however, pulling a significantly lower percentage of baseballs in June and has been shooting more of them to center. This probably does not have much of an impact on his batted ball results but it is interesting to note.
Despite hitting the ball just as hard, he only has three extra-base hits this month (one double and two homers). Could this purely mean Moreland has been the recipient of poor batted-ball luck? Is there evidence that a turnaround can be expected? Well, he has sported an unsustainable .268 BABIP(batting average on balls in play), so that probably will regress to the mean soon. His season BABIP is .316, which is considerably higher than his .287 BABIP, however. This unlucky month has perhaps balanced some batted-ball luck he was getting in the early months.
Truly, Moreland looks like he was hitting over his head in the early-going. Nothing significantly changed about the batter he was in 2017 compared to 2018, except a little bit better discipline at the plate. Most likely, he is not as bad as he was performed in June but he also is not as good as he performed in April and May. In the middle, Moreland’s true talent level lies and that is the player one should anticipate to see going forward. He should still be a positive offensive contributor but maybe he should be platooned with a lefty masher. The Red Sox need one of those, anyway, and Moreland clearly is not that.