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Mitch Moreland’s Red-Hot Road Trip

Earlier this month, I looked into the case of a talented-but-often-frustrating American League lefty first baseman who had finally begun to produce consistently. That was James Loney, whom I tossed aside — perhaps unfairly, but I won’t pretend I’m not a Dodger fan who had to watch him struggle for years — as a one-tool player for fantasy purposes.

Today, we’ll look into a similar player, but one whom I like quite a bit more: Texas’ Mitch Moreland. Despite being one of the most-added players in fantasy over the last week — six homers and three more extra-base hits in nine games will do that for you — Moreland remains available in at least 40% of leagues at all of the three main sites.

For most of Moreland’s first two full seasons, he was decent, but unexciting. He hit 31 homers over 2011-12, enough to be intriguing yet not to stand out in a crowded first base group, and mediocre runs / RBI totals and non-existent stolen base levels largely kept him off fantasy radars. If you’re the Rangers, having a replacement-level player (0.7 WAR over the two seasons) with a bit of pop and some defense for the minimum salary isn’t a bad thing to have. If you’re a fantasy player, you can and most likely did do better, and as Moreland found himself competing with Mike Napoli & Michael Young for playing time around missing a month with a strained hamstring, it was fair to wonder where his future would be.

That concern grew even larger during the winter when the impending arrival of mega-prospect Jurickson Profar had many thinking that second baseman Ian Kinsler might shift to first base and put Moreland on the bench. That never happened, and Moreland has started 39 of the first 41 games while putting up a solid .296/.348/.577, good for a very good .393 wOBA.

Moreland’s BABIP is only very slightly higher than last year’s, so this doesn’t seem a mere fluke of luck, and he’s not striking out or walking all that much more or less than he had over the previous two seasons. So what’s driving this? Is this sustainable?

For his part, Moreland sure isn’t doing much to explain it to us:

“I’m just going up there trying to have good at-bats and get a good pitch to hit,” Moreland said. “I’ve been able to do that so far, hopefully I can keep doing it. If you stay with your approach and work at getting a good pitch and get the barrel to it, the home runs will come. It’s not something you try to do. Not many guys go up to the plate trying to hit home runs and actually do it.”

Thanks, Mitch. I’ll give that a 6 on the cliche scale, but multiple points off for neglecting to mention giving 110% percent.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t your usual story of line drive rates increasing, indicating some sort of better contact with the ball. In fact, Moreland’s line drive and ground ball rates have actually sunk, with those swings turning into fly balls:

moreland_battedball

Moreland’s fly rate is up by about 7% over last season, and he’s also been helped by a HR/FB rate increase of 3%. The math here isn’t complicated: hit more balls in the air, and have a higher percentage of those airborne balls leaving the park, and you’re likely to end up with more homers. Moreland is on pace for about 37 dingers, and while that still seems optimistic to me, it’s not hard at all to see 25-30 here. For a player who was almost completely freely available a week ago, that’s a nice value.

What’s particularly interesting is that Moreland has long had a pretty sizable home/road split, putting up a .358 wOBA in Texas and just a .319 mark away. He hasn’t really resolved that in 2013, but the large gap there is partially because he’s been so good at home this year; his last five homers, believe it or not, have all come on the four-city road trip the team just completed. The Rangers play 22 of their next 33 at home, so even if Moreland’s road issues aren’t behind him, he won’t have to worry about it all that much for the next month.

Much of this goes back to simply giving the Rangers reason to keep him on the field, which he hasn’t always been able to do before. He used to be a mess away from Texas; now, he’s showing power on the road. He used to be completely useless against lefty pitching (career .293 wOBA); now, while it’s only 63 plate appearances, he’s holding his own with a .340 mark.

It’s absolutely not reasonable to expect Moreland to continue his “five homers a week” pace, especially if his flyball rate comes down. If you did snap him up recently, there’s a certain wisdom to looking to sell high, though I might wait until after this long stretch of home games conclude. But nor do I look at this and consider it to be an absolute fluke. He’s not getting particularly lucky on batted balls, and “27 and in his third full season” isn’t exactly a rare time for a hitter to figure it out.

If Moreland can simply continue being at least half-decent against lefties and on the road, that alone will keep him in the lineup and relevant. For the low, low cost of just about nothing that many fantasy owners were lucky enough to spend on him this week, that’s more than enough to keep him rostered and relevant. At the very least, those in daily leagues should play him approximately 1,000,000% of the time when he’s in Texas and facing a righty pitcher — which he’ll be doing more often than not through June.