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Alex Speier

What is the real difference between Mitch Moreland and Eric Hosmer?

Mitch Moreland
Mitch MorelandJohn Tlumacki/Globe staff file/Boston Globe

As first offseason steps go, the one taken by the Red Sox — re-signing Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13 million deal — represented an unexpected one. Most speculation at first base centered on whether the team would open its vault for Eric Hosmer, or if Hanley Ramirez would return to everyday status there in order to accommodate signing J.D. Martinez. Instead, with Moreland coming back, the Sox roster right now looks a lot like the one that was deemed deficient by the end of last year.

Of course, Moreland doesn’t represent the end of the Sox’ offseason so much as he did a starting point. As Nick Cafardo writes, the Sox remained in touch with Scott Boras, the agent for Martinez (and Hosmer – who is no longer a consideration) – after the Moreland deal.

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Nonetheless, it was understandable to wonder why a team that lacked offensive firepower in 2017 was opting for something akin to the status quo at first base rather than the most prominent free-agent target at the position, Hosmer.

Make no mistake: Hosmer is a good player. It takes little time when talking to members of the Royals front office to understand how much he was viewed as a cornerstone of an organization that reached the World Series in back-to-back years, winning in 2015.

But there’s a very good chance that Hosmer – coming off a career-best year in which he hit .318/.385/.498 (all career highs) with 25 homers (matching a career-high) – will be given a deal of more than $100 million this offseason. And so the Red Sox were left with a question: Is Hosmer so much better than Moreland that he’d justify a value gap of $15 million to $20 million a year – not to mention going to a commitment of perhaps seven years rather than two?

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On the surface, the answer seems somewhat obvious. With Moreland hitting .246/.326/.443 last year, and having been worth just 0.9 Wins Above Replacement (compared to Hosmer’s 4.1 WAR season in 2017), the value would appear considerable.

Yet beneath that surface, analytics suggest that the gap may be far more modest. How?

STAYING GROUNDED

Hosmer, who claimed his first career Silver Slugger award in 2017, is a terrific pure hitter. He has a low strikeout rate (15.5 percent), putting the ball in play to all fields in a way that makes it hard for shifts to curtail his batting average and helping to explain why he has an unusually high batting average on balls in play (.316 in his career).

By contrast, Moreland strikes out more (20.8 percent of plate appearances last year) and pulls the ball a ton into shifts. Not only does he put fewer balls in play, but fewer of the ones he does put in play end up being hits (.286 in his career).

It would be shocking if Moreland surpassed Hosmer in average in any given season. Given that both players walk with roughly the same frequency, Hosmer is also likely to post better OBPs than Moreland. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Moreland post a higher slugging percentage – or potentially even a higher OPS.

Hosmer’s offensive strength – shooting the ball to all fields – is also one of his limitations. In order to do so, he hits a ton of groundballs. On balls he put in play last year, 55.6 percent of them were grounders, the fourth highest rate in the majors. That produces a lot of singles. But the Red Sox weren’t lacking singles last year – they needed more homers.

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Hosmer did hit more homers (25) than Moreland (22) last year. But part of that total was simply that Hosmer played more than Moreland. Moreland actually hit homers slightly more frequently (once every 26.2 plate appearances) than Hosmer (1 per 26.8 PAs). He goes to the plate with bad intentions such that, when he does hit the ball, he more frequently drives it in the air in a way that allows him to tap into his raw strength.

Eric Hosmer and Mitch Moreland in 2017 The gap between the two may not be as great as some fans perceive.
Category Hosmer Moreland
PAs 671 576
Average .318 .246
OBP .385 .326
Slugging .498 .443
HR 25 22
PA/HR 26.8 26.2
BB Rate 9.8% 9.9%
K Rate 15.5% 20.8%
BABIP .351 .278
Ground ball Rate 55.6% 43.4%
Opposite-field (LF) Rate 29.0% 23.9%
Fly ball Rate 22.2% 36.2%
Average exit velocity (mph) 89.6 89.1
wOBA .385 .335
xwOBA .353 .371
UZR (Runs saved) -0.3 4.0
SOURCE: Fangraphs, Baseball Savant

LUCK WAS ON HIS SIDE?

Statcast uses the exit velocity and launch angle of every batted ball to determine the likelihood that such a hit turns into an out, a single, double, or triple. With that data, MLB.com calculates an expected, weighted on-base average (xwOBA) that is meant to capture a player’s offensive value using his quality of contact rather than the outcome of a play. (So, a player is rewarded more for a line drive that is caught with a great catch rather than a six-hopper that finds a hole for a single.)

Based on that quality of contact – and factoring in elements like walks and strikeouts – Moreland had a .371 xwOBA, higher than Hosmer’s .353 mark in 2017. Again: Hosmer’s all-fields approach increases the value of his contact while Moreland’s pull-heavy approach pulls his down, but 1) the value of Moreland’s contact is at least close to that of Hosmer and 2) that data suggests that Hosmer benefited from good luck in 2017, while Moreland might seem like a good candidate to see better numbers going forward than he posted last year.

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GOLD IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Hosmer won his fourth Gold Glove in 2017. Yet as measured by both Ultimate Zone Rating (Fangraphs’ defensive metric) and Defensive Runs Saves (produced by Baseball Information Solutions), he graded as a below average first baseman. Moreland – the 2016 Gold Glove winner – graded as above-average defensively in the eyes of both systems.

What goes into that, and is there a gap between perception and reality with Hosmer? First, it’s worth noting: There are plenty of people who study advanced analytics who believe that Hosmer is a good first baseman. Yet there remains a real chance that he’s overrated in that regard.

The view of first basemen is often framed by how well they pick throws in the dirt and how they throw. Range is far harder to appreciate visually. Hosmer is fantastic at picking balls out of the dirt, quite possibly the best in the AL. But the opportunities to make an impact with a scoop aren’t that frequent. They might be higher for the Sox – thanks to some throwing inconsistencies for Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts – than other teams, but not high enough (in the eyes of analysts) to close the range gap that has consistently shown up between Moreland and Hosmer.

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In all likelihood, the Sox could view Moreland as a better first baseman than Hosmer. Of course, Hosmer is clearly a better baserunner than Moreland.

HOW MUCH TO BET?

Some imagine Hosmer, who is just 28, transforming his swing in his prime years to tap more frequently into his significant raw power. That notion seemed particularly attractive in thinking about Hosmer playing at Fenway Park, where he has a .354/.404/.485 line in 25 career games.

But in 2016 and 2017 – the two seasons of his career that did more to reward fly balls and turn them into homers than any other – Hosmer posted the highest ground ball rates of his career. The state of the game encouraged numerous players to get the ball in the air. Hosmer went in the opposite direction. That decision had considerable payoff in the form of an excellent 2017 season, but it also put Hosmer in the same mold as a number of hitters already on the Red Sox roster rather than establishing him as the pure power threat they lacked.

Still, a strong case can be made to bet on Hosmer’s future. But for the Sox, it would have been one thing to make such a bet if the Sox would have been comparing the prospect of a three- or four-year contract for a bigger number than what Moreland received.

Paying Hosmer $100 million more than Moreland on the basis of an upside bet trying to capture something that Hosmer has never been ultimately made less sense to the Sox than signing Moreland for a modest deal and then looking to add an additional player or players in free agency. After all, the Sox are already making plenty of upside bets with players such as Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.

Whether re-signing Moreland was the right course remains to be seen. Much for the Sox will depend on the next shoe(s) to drop.

Nonetheless, at this juncture, the decision to add Moreland over Hosmer shouldn’t be viewed through the same prism as the gamble that the Sox made a year ago to sign Moreland over, for instance, Edwin Encarnacion. The value gap appears different – as is the potential to make further moves in concert with it.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.