Mitch Moreland and Early Struggles
Through the first thirteen games of the season, the Texas Rangers have been absolutely dominant. They are second in the league in FIP (Fielding Indenpendent Pitching) and second in the league in wRC+ (Runs Created Adjusted for League and Park). Virtually every player is excelling, too; this isn’t just the work of one or two superstars. Josh Hamilton has been absolutely crushing the ball in his contract year, but Ian Kinsler, freshly rewarded with a massive contract extension, isn’t far behind him. The pitching staff, across the board, has been phenomenal. Even Yu Darvish is getting into it, putting together an excellent start last night that limited a potent Detroit offense to just one run.
There have been a couple spots of early trouble, however. Joe Nathan, whose stretch of dominance as a league-leading closer for the Minnesota Twins is unrivaled save by Mariano Rivera and his accomplishments, is not putting up the results he once was. I’ve written at length about Nathan, and won’t get into it here, but basically I think he’s been unlucky and I have high hopes going forward. Another problem area is center field. Although Josh Hamilton apparently prefers that position (and when you look at contract valuations for CF as opposed to LF and RF, its pretty clear why) and David Murphy is happy to get at-bats, the fact of the matter is Murphy has been occasionally indifferent in LF, whereas Hamilton would have been explosive. Moreover, Craig Gentry, who has been occasionally used as a late-game defensive substitute, has made some excellent plays so far while on the field. The only problem is his bat: even with a .353 BABIP, he has only managed a .272 wOBA, and is currently producing something like 63% of what an average major leaguer might be. David Murphy is completely crushing that, producing a .387 wOBA. Until David Murphy comes back down to Earth after his stellar work so far with the bat this season, the Rangers have no cause for complaint.
CF and Joe Nathan not being everything they could be is a first-world problem. The real issue with the Rangers is 1B, and that means Mitch Moreland.
It pains me to be critical of Moreland. I love how he played injured for half a season in 2011 without complaining once or using it as an excuse. I love how he was the third string 1b prospect in the Rangers system, behind Justin Smoak and Chris Davis, (since traded away to the Mariners for Cliff Lee and the Orioles for Koji Uehara), and how he has managed to outshine them all. I love his towering home runs, his unwillingness to strike out, the occasional clutch hit.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much to love so far this season. Through 26 PA, Moreland is hitting a paltry .209 wOBA, making Craig Gentry look like a mammoth hitter. After offseason wrist surgery, Moreland was supposed to be past all these issues. Although projection systems weren’t exactly in love with him, Steamer still expected him to manage a .341 wOBA. What’s going on?
Well, we can rule out plate discipline. Moreland’s K% has gone down, while his BB% has gone up. Both changes have been small, but still, progress. We can rule out power: anyone who saw his towering shot April 9th against the Mariners (the picture is actually him running the bases after that blast) can attest to the fact that he able to lift the ball into the seats when he makes good contact. We can also rule out Line Drive %, which often indicates that a hitter is no longer making good contact. Yes, Moreland’s LD% has fallen for the third consecutive year, but it still is at 16%, a respectable figure, and not altogether far off from last years LD% of 18%.
BABIP might provide some good insight. Moreland’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (an approximate measure of how lucky you are in how the balls you contact fall into the field) has been a catastrophic .111, compared to a career average of .280, and a projection of .289. Moreland is, without a doubt, not getting lucky with his balls in play. However, BABIP isn’t just influenced by luck. Other things, such as team defense, the ability of a pitcher to induce weak contact, and the park you are playing in, also influence BABIP. In fact, the Rangers’ team BABIP of .327 is well above Moreland’s, and in fact is second-highest in the league. Since Moreland has been facing the base conditions as the rest of his team, you would expect his BABIP to be higher than his career average, not lower, unless he really was spectacularly unlucky.
I think the answer lies in the kinds of pitches Moreland is seeing. If you look at the pitch values, as in the number of runs Moreland is producing per 100 pitches of a particular type, Moreland is hitting fastballs in 2012 for a wFB/C of -4.36, whereas in 2011 he was at .76, and in 2011 .89. Basically, Moreland has not been hitting fastballs well at all so far, and pitchers have responded by throwing him more of those. In 2011, 53% of the pitches Moreland saw were fastballs; in 2012, that number has shot up to 65%, whereas the number of sliders, changeups, and curveballs has decreased. Incidentally, Moreland has been hitting those better this year.
If opposing pitchers are aware of Moreland newly developed weakness against fastballs, its a small wonder Ron Washington is also aware of it, and has decided to hold Moreland from the lineup often in favor of Napoli, who has been very impressive recently. Its possible Moreland spent much of the offseason recovering from surgery by working on hitting breaking balls, thinking the fastball-hitting skill would come back more easily. Instead he has forced himself into a kind of reversal of talent, leading to an adjustment pitchers are happy to make.
Obviously this is purely speculative, but if my theory is true, I’m very hopeful for Moreland’s future. Re-learning how to hit fastballs is probably the easiest thing for hitters to do. A few weeks of adjustment, and Moreland can go back to being a contributor to the team’s success.