Nationals Baseball: Offensive Keyhole - Mike Morse

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Offensive Keyhole - Mike Morse

This was not an easy decision this year. In large part the problem comes from how I choose to define the term "offensive keyhole".  For those unfamiliar with the process (what - you haven't been reading this blog for years and memorizing everything I say?) I'm looking for someone that: 
  1. will start the season or play a lot of games at a position
  2. has presented a projection that we believe in but could be wildly off for non-injury reasons.
  3. who's performance could significantly effect the performance of the team. 
That #2 is the sticky point this season because you may not have a projection you believe in strongly if a guy hasn't had a lot of major league experience (Ramos, Espinosa), is coming back from injury (Zimmerman, LaRoche) or is coming off a career-best/worst year (Morse, Werth). I flirted with the idea of going with no keyhole but in the end decided that Mike Morse still fit the bill despite the career year.

I did consider others, mainly Werth, Zimmerman, and Espinosa. Werth though really did have some bad luck last year and while he'll never be 2010 Werth again, the smart money is on a bounce back year (around .265 / .360 / .470) within range of what I feel most people are expecting. Zimmerman's stats have been consistent enough, even through injury, that I can't predict a major drop-off from him. Worst plausible case scenario is that his power doesn't come back, but a .285 20 HR season would only be wildly off for those fans looking for an MVP season.  Espinosa has looked terrible recently and his huge K-rate is concerning. That .236 average may in fact be a high point, but I don't think anyone out there is expecting him to hit .280.  .215 with 21 HRs might be disappointing but I think he falls short in comparison to how Morse may disappoint.

OK so Mike Morse is the keyhole.  But why? Let's start off first with expectations.  Last season Morse hit .303 / .360 / .550 with 31 homers in a few dozen fewer at bats than we'd expect him to get as a starter.  Most Nats fans I think do see this as a "peak" year but at the same time they see the .289 / .352 / .519 line the year before and believe this level of production he's put up the past 2 years isn't far off of what they should expect.  I'm thinking the average Nats fans is looking for a .295 season with 33 home runs (given he plays roughly 155-160 games).

Why don't I think he'll hit .295 with 33 home runs?  Let's start with the power first.

Mike Morse hit 31 homers in a 2011 with a HR/FB rate of around 21.2%.  This is kind of a high number.  It's higher than he put up in the previous year, higher than he put up looking over his past few minor league seasons and it's a number high enough that it's not easily repeatable, even for the best power hitters.  For example, in 2010 12 qualified batters had a HR/FB % over 19%, only 5 repeated that level of home run hitting in 2011. I'm not saying that Morse is all of a sudden in going to become a slap-hitter. I'm just saying that I think percentage of time his FBs end up going out as HRs is going to drop slightly.  Let's say 17%, that's still Top 25 range. 

Mike Morse hit .303 last year with but with a healthy .344 BABIP.  That's not a crazy number given the BABIPs he has put up in the minors, but like the HR/FB rate is high.  It's getting toward a level where only speedy line-drive hitters are able replicate it year after year. For instance, in 2010 15 batters in the majors had a BABIP over .340.  Only 3 were able to repeat that in 2011, two speedy guys (Starlin Castro and Austin Jackson - who actually tumbled from .396 to .340) and one guy who may very well be the best hitter in the league (Joey Votto). Again it's not that the numbers suggest Mike Morse has to plummet here, but given his speed and recent minor league numbers I'd expect a drop to a more reasonable level of .325 or so.

So what do an 17% HR/RB rate and a .325 BABIP do to Mike Morse's projection? I can show my work if you like but based on 650 plate appearances, I have him now at a .288 average and 29 homers. (If you think he'll have less plate appearances knock off a homer for every 20 or so).  Not too bad right? .285+ and high 20s in homers?  Looking at projections this probably is a bit less power than they would have for Morse in the same number of PAs, but the average seems about the same. I'd say it hardly even qualifies as a mild disappointment.

Ok but now comes the troubling stuff.

Mike Morse has a skill set that shows no recognition of the strike zone. Looking at the entire baseball history tells us that combination of K-rate, BB-rate, and production is unsustainable. In the 100+ years of baseball only 9 times has a player walked less than 40 times, struck out more than 125 times and hit over .300. Baseball has been around a long time folks. Even if I relax the standards to walk under 50 times and K 110 times or more, we only see 20 seasons of guys doing it. If you look at the guys on top of these lists you mostly find careers with much lower batting averages and with these high average years found during their peak age seasons.  Baseball players just don't hit like this consistently, even in this new era. If you don't walk, pitchers will eventually stop throwing you strikes. If you strike out a lot (read: make poor contact) those bad pitches will become poorly hit (or missed) balls. It's what history tells us. Perhaps Mike Morse is different. Andres Galarraga was able to put up a couple years past 30 of this type of approach and a high average. God knows I believe in the outlier (see: Lannan, John) but I'm not ready to buy into Mike Morse just yet. This means I'm far more inclined to believe that Morse will hit .275 than .285 (and even that is generous based on history). That drop in batting average also knocks off a couple of home runs as well.

Now we come to the injury.  Morse's injury is similar to the injury Zimm suffered last year.  While all of Zimm's stats were fairly constant there was one thing that stood out for Ryan. He didn't generate the same power as before. I don't think Morse will suffer the same dramatic drop, since his injury is not as severe, but a slight one would almost have to be expected.  Knock off another couple of homers.

Ok so now where is Morse?  Around .275 and 25 homers (and I feel I was being generous with the whole "strikes out way too much to hit .288" thing.)  You may still be ok with that but temember Mike doesn't contribute in any other way.  He does not field well.  He does not run the bases well.  He does not walk.  If he's not hitting for average and power he's not helping the team. .275 and 25 is getting to the minimum level of where a guy like Morse can be a positive.

If you're not disappointed yet consider I haven't factored in his age (30 - about where pure sluggers can start to fall off the cliff), the fact that he didn't hit nearly as well as a left-fielder which is where he'll be playing this year (be that a fluke or a legit psychological/physical reason), or his "only power" last month of the season.  While I'll go ahead and stop the descent at .275 and 25, there is the potential for something worse. 

Is there a bright side to this?  Sure - I could be wrong. I wasn't with Nyjer, and I wasn't with Ian, but I don't think this year it's as cut and dried. Remember I did say I almost put no one in this spot. And at this point I'll remind everyone that projections exist for a reason and while .295 and 33 is probably a pipe dream, you'd be better off betting on the .285 and 29 it seems like the crowd believes in, than on my .275 and 25 (or less - really tha BA may come down in a scary way).  These aren't people caught up in Beast Mode, they are guys trying to be objective and they all like Morse more than I do.


cass said...

I'm confused... Baseball Reference says there are a bunch of guys with less than 40 walks and more than 125 strikeouts that have hit above or close to .300.

Harper said...

Gah - looking back I had triples=0 included in the subset. Ok rewrite time - thanks.

Harper said...

Sorry - about that. I don't think anything changes other than going from basically NO HOPE, to desperately little hope. There really aren't that many close to .300 and most of the seasons we see are one offs or two-offs from guys who spent most of their career hitting substantially lower averages or changed to more reasonable hitters. Galarraga and Soriano are two exceptions but Soriano did it mainly in his youth as a slightly different hitter and Galarraga benefitted immensely from Coors. I'm not sure if Morse comps well to either.

Donald said...

I know I'm drinking the koolaid here, but it seems like there could be two factors helping Morse on the plus side. One is that with better hitters following him than last year, pitchers won't necessarily have the luxury of throwing him balls. The second is a players ability to adjust. This is fuzzier, but you're assuming that pitchers will learn how to pitch him, but that he won't learn how to hit them.

Also, in terms of a keyhole, if he performs as you expect, is that really going to have that big an impact? Last year it certainly would have, but he was carrying the offense for a while.

Anonymous said...

His few MLB at bats mean his age shouldn't be a factor just yet actually, so that should be ignored.

Add in his sheer size, which means any contact will guarantee him 25-30 home runs.

Factor in added bats to the lineup giving him more protection --> should be able to hit at least .275 - .285

If he can hit .280 and be healthy all year, he will EASILY hit 30 home runs.

Any worries are foolish.

Harper said...

DOnald - maybe but having Werth behind him for most of his good months didn't seem to have a negative effect.

"you're assuming that pitchers will learn how to pitch him, but that he won't learn how to hit them."

Yes, I am. Age has something to do with that. It's usually a back and forth kind of thing and I'm not sure he has time left in him for that.

As for the actual impact - depends. All in all you're looking at a game, maybe two going from the .295 33 Morse to .275 25 Morse. On one hand that's just one game - but on the other this season one game might really matter (and a 1 1/2 game swing by one player is pretty big). I think the psychological impact may be bigger if the team isn't winning like fans thought they should and the reason is a struggling O.

Anon -
"His few MLB at bats mean his age shouldn't be a factor just yet actually, so that should be ignored."

The body doesn't age according to MLB at bats. He is getting old, he has the same wear and tear any other 30 year old would have - just because he got it through injury and minor league games rather than major league ones doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

"Add in his sheer size, which means any contact will guarantee him 25-30 home runs."

Not necessarily true but I'll grant you that his power is more likely to stay high than his average.

"Factor in added bats to the lineup giving him more protection --> should be able to hit at least .275 - .285"

It's a possibility - really this comes down to how Werth and LaRoche perform. (or Bryce when he comes up) could help

"If he can hit .280 and be healthy all year, he will EASILY hit 30 home runs."

Easily? Not unless you think his power is going to get even better. If he hit .280 last year he hits 28-29 home runs. To easily clear 30 homers (33?) while hitting .280 he'd have to have 600 ABs. Thats not impossible, but it is a tall task for a cleanup hitter in the NL.

Hoo said...

I demand a refund. A couple of weeks ago, I said I was concerned about Morse regressing. And you told me not to worry.
And now here you are, telling me that worries were if anything underestimating the potential fall. Not cool.

Harper said...

I told you not to worry? Doesn't sound like me....



Nope don't see it. I do see a comment agreeing with you that Zimm's return to form could counteract the expected slight Morse regression. I'll stand by that. Of course what I'm saying here is that the expected slight regression might be underselling Morse's fall.