August 11, 2011
Meditating on Morse
Take a look at the current MLB leaderboard for True Average, won’t you? The top ten, with a minimum of 350 plate appearances, is littered with the kind of names you’d expect to see: Jose Bautista, Matt Kemp, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and so on. But just beyond that, tied for 12th at the time of this writing, you’ll see two huge outliers who barely even had MLB careers at this point a year ago: Casey Kotchman and Michael Morse. That’s not even that much of an exaggeration, since on August 11, 2010, Kotchman was on his way to hitting .217/.280/.336 on his fourth team in just over two calendar years, and Morse’s 130 plate appearances to that point nearly matched his combined total in the four previous seasons. One year later, they’re suddenly among the most productive first basemen in the game.
Colleague Jason Collette ably looked at the miraculous revival of Kotchman and what we might expect from him going forward earlier this month, so today the focus is on Morse, who took the usual first baseman career path to stardom of being a 6’5” ex-shortstop who was once suspended for performance-enhancing drugs and also was traded straight-up for Ryan Langerhans (I’m not sure which one is more embarrassing).
The Langerhans deal that brought Morse to Washington in June 2009 was so under-the-radar that it didn’t even warrant more than a notation in our “Transaction Action” column at the time, and for good reason: Morse had collected just 79 MLB plate appearances between 2007-09 for Seattle, though he was hitting a robust (if PCL-inflated) .312/.370/.481 for Triple-A Tacoma when he was dealt. He broke camp with the Nationals in 2010, though he spent a portion of the first two months with Triple-A Syracuse, generally doing little to change his employment prospects. Stuck behind Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham at first base and left field with a hodgepodge of Roger Bernadina, Justin Maxwell, Willie Harris, and others in right, Morse seemed unlikely to break out of his reputation as being a Quad-A player, if he had even that. Yet, finally given a chance to play as the regular right fielder in June, Morse took advantage, hitting .286/.346/.531 with 15 longballs between June 10 and the end of the season, causing fans and fantasy players everywhere to wonder just where this guy came from and if he’d be able to follow it up in 2011 (it’s here I’ll offer full disclosure and point out that I selected Morse as my NL offensive sleeper in the BP preseason fantasy predictions.)
While Dunn and Willingham departed following the season, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Laynce Nix, and Rick Ankiel all arrived, pushing Morse into a battle for left field playing time. It didn’t go well; having ostensibly won the job following an electric spring (9 homers), Morse lost the left field gig by the end of April, and by May 13 he had been relegated to pinch-hitting duty thanks to a line of just .244/.277/.337. The power display that had marked the second half of 2010 seemed a distant memory, and that could have been the end of this story had LaRoche not finally succumbed to the shoulder injury he’d been fighting for much of the season on May 20th. The Nationals, with only Morse and the ancient Matt Stairs as first base alternatives, gave Morse another shot. Other than a three-game break in July after being hit by a pitch, Morse has started every game since, hitting .346/.400/.636 and getting placed on the Final Vote ballot for the NL All-Star team.
The question, of course, then becomes, “is Morse for real?”, and can we expect to see him keeping hitting shots like the tape-measure blast he laid on the Cubs on Tuesday? The most glaring piece of evidence that suggests he isn’t is his .377 BABIP, a number which currently places him third in the game behind the godly Adrian Gonzalez and the speedy Michael Bourn. Morse, with neither the natural skill of Gonzalez nor the speed of Bourn, is usually not the type of player you’d expect to see near the top of that list, at least not without the worry that a huge regression is coming. But in Morse’s case, I’m not so sure we can count on the BABIP gods evening things out. His career BABIP is .358, and that’s not entirely fueled by 2011; in each of the two previous seasons in which he’s received at least 250 plate appearances, his BABIP mark was above average (.341 in 2005, .330 in 2010). Now nearly 1100 plate appearances into his major league career, one would think that we would have seen signs of that regression starting by now.
There’s also the possibility that he’s not coming from as far away as it seems. Though the power wasn’t there in Seattle—he hit just three homers in parts of four seasons, all in 2005—he did have a .300/.365/.397 total line as a Mariner, good for a 107 OPS+ in limited time. What kept him from regular playing time were injuries—he had knee surgery in 2006 and missed nearly all of 2008 after shoulder surgery—along with questions about his defense, as he struggled to find a home after it became clear he couldn’t stick at shortstop. In the rare times in which he’s both been healthy and playing regularly, Morse has rarely failed to produce.
Though I hate to drop this comparison on anybody, it’s interesting to note the career similarities between Morse and his newly-enriched teammate, Werth, who also fought through early-career injuries to reach stardom. In parts of five AAA seasons, Morse’s line was .292/.354/.461; Werth, in parts of four AAA seasons, had a very similar .268/.355/.472. Through their age-28 years in the bigs (2010 for Morse, 2007 for Werth), Morse had an .810 OPS (117 OPS+) with a home run every 29.4 at-bats; Werth had a .793 OPS (104 OPS+) with a nearly identical HR rate, each having had roughly 300 plate appearances in the previous two seasons. At 29, Werth had a breakout year for Philadelphia, hitting .273/.363/.498 with 24 homers, and Morse has nearly two months to improve on his .323/.371/.562 and 20 homers.
The point is not to say that it’s definite or even remotely likely that Morse will become the next Werth and end up with a huge contract someday—particularly since Werth provides far more value both on the basepaths and in the field. It’s certainly not the usual course to see players burst onto the scene in their late 20s, though late bloomers like Werth and Jose Bautista certainly exist. Morse isn’t going to reach the same level as those two—like you needed me to tell you that—but Morse’s performance does look to be more than merely a flash in the pan despite the unorthodox way in which he arrived here. That’s good news both for the Nationals, who control him through 2014, and fantasy players, who could have picked him up off of nearly every waiver wire earlier this season.