Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mitch Moreland is in a Perfect Situation

Mitch Moreland has flown under the radar for most of his time in the majors thus far. For years, the Rangers have struggled to find someone to play first base and cement that position. Smoak was supposed to be that guy. That didn't work out and Smoak was used to get Cliff Lee from the Mariners. Then the Rangers tried Chris Davis and after 45 games, he was batting under the Mendoza Line. By the time the Rangers tried their third option, Mitch Moreland, there weren't many expectations. But Moreland quietly stepped in and put his stamp on that position for perhaps years to come.

Moreland's 47 games for the Rangers at the end of last year were more solid than spectacular. He batted .255. And while that's not great, it was better than his predecessors. But Moreland was also surprisingly patient at the plate and hit nine homers in his 47 games and finished with a respectable .833 OPS, good for a 121 OPS+. But where Moreland really shined was in the post season. Moreland had a slash line of .348/.400/.500 in the post season and was really the only Rangers' threat in their weak World Series showing.

Despite Moreland's post season, analysts were not overly optimistic on his 2011 season. ZIPs pegged him with a final OPS of around .780 while Baseball Prospectus predicted an even smaller .779. In fact, BP indicated that Moreland would finish with a negative WARP. Part of that was his defensive projection, which wasn't optimistic.

So far, Moreland is making those projections look silly. He's already accumulated 0.5 WAR in just thirteen games, his defense looks much improved and his current .931 OPS and 155 OPS+ look mighty fine. To be sure, it's way too early in the season to make any kind of call on how Moreland will finish, but the early signs are very good.

The great thing for Moreland is that he is in a perfect situation in Texas. He can just be another cog in a powerful offensive wheel. With guys like Kinsler, Hamilton (when he's not hurt), Cruz, Young and Beltre in the line up, there is no pressure on Moreland to be a linchpin. Compare his situation with Jason Heyward, who the Braves need to be a star because Chipper Jones and Dan Uggla are the only other legitimate threats in that line up. Moreland doesn't have that kind of pressure to perform.

And Moreland has a history of fighting up hill. Only 25, he was only a 17th Round draft pick who has already beat long odds. He hit well in every level of the Rangers' minor league system and his minor league totals feature a slash line of: .313/.383/.509. With those numbers, which are pretty darn close to what he is doing now, there is no reason to think he can't replicate that in the majors.

Digging a little deeper into Moreland's numbers, he's successful on every pitch type except for the split-fingered fastball and the knuckleball, two pitches he won't see all the much. Since he's young, pitchers only throw him about 56 percent fastballs, but he handles the slider and curve just fine so that strategy isn't working for the pitchers thus far.

The one concern is how Moreland will fare against left handed pitching. He's only had three plate appearances this year and the Rangers seem more apt to slide Napoli or Young over to first when a tough left hander is pitching. The Rangers are probably basing that on Moreland's less than stellar .604 OPS against lefties last year. But that was in only 23 plate appearances. The Rangers should give him more at bats against lefties so he can show what he can do against them. If the team's current strategy holds up, Moreland will only play 80 percent of the time during the course of the season.

But again, Moreland is in a perfect position in Texas. He's not asked to be one of the stars. He's not in the limelight. And he is thriving. This observer thinks he will thrive all season long and for many seasons to come.

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