The Mariners offense has been feast or famine during the first few weeks of the season. Kyle Lewis is leading the majors in hits while Evan White leads the majors in strikeouts. J.P. Crawford’s walk rate is five points higher than his strikeout rate while Dan Vogelbach has walked in more than a quarter of his plate appearances but has just two hits. One of the biggest surprises has been the performance of Dylan Moore. With another multi-hit game last night, he’s now slashing .367/.367/.700 across seven starts, good for a 205 wRC+. Is this just a flash in the pan or has he made real improvements under the hood?
Cast as a utility player whose glove wasn’t good enough to stick at one position and whose bat wasn’t strong enough to hold an everyday role, Moore started this spring in a competition with Tim Lopes to be the last man on the bench. He had put together a decent showing in 2019, getting at least one start at every position on the diamond except catcher. He accumulated 0.4 fWAR in 113 games with an 88 wRC+. He hit for a little more pop than expected, possibly a side-effect of the dragless ball, but a 33.0% strikeout rate really suppressed his offensive potential.
Due to a positive COVID test — he reported feeling no symptoms — he was delayed in reporting to summer camp and spent the first few days of the season continuing to ramp up his activity. The expanded roster rules meant that he didn’t have to worry about playing for a spot on the active roster since the team could essentially stash him on the bench until he was ready for game action. He made his season debut on July 28, the Mariners sixth game of the season, knocking two hits including a double. He’s simply continued to hit since then earning a hit in all but one of his starts and getting multiple hits in four of them. More than half of his hits have gone for extra bases.
We’re working with just 30 plate appearances worth of data here so small sample size caveats apply throughout, but there are some really promising improvements to Moore’s underlying stats that could indicate a potential breakout season for him. Let’s start with his batted ball stats.
Last year, Moore’s average exit velocity was 88.4 mph, just a bit below league average. This year, his average exit velocity is up to 93.7 mph, tied for eighth highest in baseball among batters with at least 25 batted ball events. Exit velocity tends to stabilize rather quickly but 25 batted ball events fall well short of that point. One thing we can use to adjust our expectations of Moore’s true talent is his maximum exit velocity. A couple of years ago, Eno Sarris of The Athletic found that batters who increased their maximum exit velocity tended to outperform their projections by significant margins. He found that batters who produce a max exit velocity over 108 mph will gain about six points of OPS per mile per hour relative to their projection. Additionally, batters who increase their max exit velocity will add a further eight points to their OPS for every additional mile per hour they add over their previous high.
Last year, Moore’s maximum exit velocity was 106.4 mph on a line drive single to left field on September 3. This season, he set a new high of 109.8 mph on his second batted ball of the season, this line drive double off Patrick Sandoval.
Both ZiPS and Steamer projected an OPS of .675 for Moore this year. Based on Sarris’s research above, we can adjust our expectations by around 36 points of additional OPS. That’s enough to push his projected OPS over .700, which may not feel like much, and certainly doesn’t make him a superstar, but it might be the difference between riding the bench and starting regularly.
And just in case you were wondering if this was a Taylor Motter-esque situation where Moore is propping up his underlying skills by targeting inside pitches and pulling everything, here’s Moore’s spray chart grouped by exit velocity.
He’s continued to show an ability to hit for power to right field, something he did regularly last season too.
The other big improvement he’s made is to his contact rate. That was a point of emphasis for him over the offseason. He discussed those adjustments during a recent media session. He worked to “create more consistent contact and more room for error in my swing — more contact points. Creating less swing and miss.”
Those swing adjustments have had an immediate effect. His contact rate is 10 points higher than it was last year and nearly all of that improvement has come on pitches thrown in the zone. Here’s a heatmap of his whiffs from last year.
There’s far too much red on pitches thrown in the heart of the plate. He whiffed on nearly a quarter of the pitches he offered at in the middle of the zone last year. This year, he hasn’t missed a single pitch thrown over the heart of the plate and has whiffed on just three pitches thrown in the zone. His swing decisions are still sound too. He doesn’t chase out of the zone very often and he’s swinging at pitches in the zone just as often as he was last year. But simply being able to make contact with the pitches he’s supposed to in the zone has resulted in a massive improvement in results.
In such a short season where baseball’s “what have you done for me lately” attitude is ratched up to extreme levels, Moore has shown that he deserves regular playing time wherever the Mariners can find it. So far that’s mostly been in the outfield, and with just two regular outfielders on the roster, he’ll likely continue to see time on the grass rather than on the dirt. The swing adjustments Moore worked on during the offseason have had an immediate impact and it will be interesting to see if they lead to continued success. If he can continue to sting the ball and keep his contact rate up, we may be in store for a breakout season from him.