October 16, 2009
Everyone knew the Angels planned on using Kendry Morales at first base to replace Mark Teixeira this year, but the number of people who thought it would be a good move was much, much lower. Morales had put up great numbers in the minors, and was highly regarded when he first came to the United States from Cuba, but his talent had not translated into major league production. But finally given his opportunity to play every day this year, he came around, turning in one of the Angels' most productive seasons. How did Morales get to that point, and what does his future hold for him?
There are two seasons of Kendry Morales data from his time playing for Cuba, at ages 19 and 20. He hit .324/.393/.577 in 2002 and .391/.497/.609 in 2003-his second season was cut short due to Morales' repeated attempts at defection, as the government banned him from playing. This gave Morales even more reason to defect, and he succeeded in June of 2004, establishing residency in the Dominican Republic. This made him an international free agent, and the then-Anaheim Angels rewarded him with a six-year major league contract.
Baseball Prospectus 2005 saw the move as a big-time-but worthwhile-risk by the Halos:
When it comes to Cuba, we might be better off giving it [PECOTA] empanadas and café con leche than baseball statistics, because although we have some numbers, we're not entirely sure how to put them into context. The Cuban leagues look to have a talent level somewhere around that of short-season A-ball leagues, but that's an early, educated guess. We also don't know if we should be confident of Morales' reported age.
Baseball America felt that Morales was easily the best position player developed by Cuba in the post-revolutionary era since Omar Linares, who was also the last teenager to star in Cuban baseball before Morales. Both PECOTA and Baseball America felt Morales had potential as a middle-of-the-order power hitter, and at the time of publication for both annual prospect lists, the Angels were considering letting Morales fight for a job on the major league team out of spring training. Visa problems prohibited his entering the country in time, but this would turn out to be good for his development in the long run anyway.
The Angels wound up placing him in High-A at Rancho Cucamonga initially, which, given the supposed talent of the Cuban leagues, was still an aggressive promotion. After a year-plus stretch away from the game, the 22-year-old nevertheless didn't show many signs of rust, as he slugged a homer on his first swing, and ended up hitting .344/.400/.544 over 90 at-bats. The Angels had hoped they were picking up a power hitter, and he didn't disappoint, with four more homers over that short span of time. He was promptly promoted to Double-A, where the barrage of offense continued (.306/.349/.530 with 17 homers). The most appealing part of this debut season may have been that Morales struck out just 54 times in 400 plate appearances (13.5 percent). He could stand to take a few more walks (5.8 percent) but at least he displayed excellent control of the strike zone.
Now with his first season of pro ball in the US behind him, the analysts had a little more sense as to who the Angels had signed. Baseball America ranked Morales seventh in the Angels organization, with Jim Callis putting him in his personal top 50 prospect list. They described him as a "mature hitter with above-average power from both sides of the plate," but said he "repeats his swing better from the left side." Morales was at his best when he kept his hands and weight back, as he generated his best power this way and was capable of hitting the ball to all fields. After seeing his defensive play up close, it was thought that he wouldn't make it as an outfielder, and would need to play first base or DH due to slow footwork and simply "OK" hands.
Baseball Prospectus 2006 liked Morales' first taste of the pros as well:
Morales came to these shores and excelled; it looks like the classic American immigrant story, the life of Andrew Carnegie if he had made it big in baseball instead of steel-at least so far. There are still a few flaws to be corrected before Morales donates 2,800 libraries or funds an endowment for world peace. He played in offense-friendly leagues, so his numbers aren't quite as good as they look at first glance. He's not big on the whole ball-four thing, though he does make good contact. Finally, he has yet to establish himself defensively; he's moved around the field but seems most comfortable at first.
The 2006 season would mark the beginning of Morales' bouncing back and forth between the minors and the big leagues. He went to Triple-A to play for Salt Lake in the PCL, and hit .320/.359/.516 with 12 homers, 40 punchouts, and 14 free passes over 256 at-bats. Slugging .500 in the PCL does not necessarily mean you are major league-ready-I'm pretty sure you or I have some .400 seasons in us in some PCL parks-but the Angels called him up to the majors where he struggled in his first taste of big-league action. He made contact like before-he struck out just 28 times in 215 plate appearances (13 percent)-but didn't have much success on the balls he did hit, with a .250 BABIP and a .234/.293/.371 line. He grounded into 11 double plays in that third of a season, which is the kind of thing you can put up with when you hit tons of homers and get on base a lot, two things Morales didn't do much of when he wasn't busy grounding out. He would have to improve on his 1.5 G/F ratio if he was to stop doing that so often-his 33.5 percent fly-ball rate that year is the lowest of his major league career.
A basic problem was that Morales struggled with changeups, as he was -4.7 runs below average on the off-speed pitch for the year. He also struggled with fastballs (-5.6), and opposing pitchers were not shy about throwing him a strike on the first pitch (63.3 percent; league average was 58.8 percent). This disappointing campaign put a dent in the analysis community's love for him; Baseball Prospectus 2007 knew he had room to improve, but pointed out the differences in expectation versus fact regarding Morales:
Morales is the latest example of a Cuban import being something less than advertised. He's not the athletic, young outfielder they thought they might have bought, but is instead a stiff, slow-footed first baseman, as well as an impatient, hack-happy hitter. He's still young enough that if he improves his pitch recognition, he could take a step forward and deliver a bit more power from his line-drive stroke, but he's behind Casey Kotchman for now, and his ceiling is considerably more limited than the sunny wishcasts on the original date of purchase.
As pointed out yesterday with Matt Kemp's profile, a little bit of patience can go a long way, and that's what Morales needed in order to up his production in the bigs. He was sent back to Triple-A to refine his game, and though he had something of a weird line-his .145 ISO was just a tick above what he produced in the majors the year before, and nowhere near what he was capable of-the Angels recalled him, and enjoyed some success. Morales hit .294/.333/.479, solving his ground-ball issue from the year before while bringing his ISO up to .185. Sure, it wasn't quite what the Angels expected him to do given his earlier minor league bashing, but it was a step in the right direction, especially following 2006's dreadful performance. However, Baseball Prospectus 2008 was not positive about his future given his less-than-stellar contributions in the majors to this point:
In the long term, Morales may end up being just a very good pinch-hitter. He will hit for average without drawing enough walks or having enough power to be an everyday first baseman or DH. He's been stronger from the left side in his career; that won't help him take at-bats from Kotchman, but it should make him viable as the inexpensive big half of a DH platoon this year and next, or would if Garret Anderson wasn't being squeezed out of the outfield picture.
The 2008 season was a tale of two Moraleses, as we had the one that hit .341/.376/.543 in Triple-A-easily the most impressive professional season of his career, and at an age where it could still mean something for the future-and the one that bombed in his time in the majors (.213/.273/.393 in 61 at-bats). There were some things to like about his campaign, despite the awful line and small sample: he walked in 6.2 percent of his plate appearances, and kept his whiffs down still at 10.6 percent. His .180 ISO was around the same as the previous year, but his .196 big-league BABIP was killing him, and had Morales picked up 300 plate appearances rather than remaining in double-digits, this most likely would have evened out and looked like a slightly better version of his 2007 season. In fact, in both of those campaigns, he had improved his G/F ratio and his production against fastballs and changeups, so there was a lot of underlying improvement that had not been given a chance to show itself over a full season yet.
PECOTA was not enthused by Morales' production, as his 90th percentile forecast didn't look like much more than his 2007 campaign. His second-closest comparable was Randall Simon, which is the kind of resumé item that most employers would avoid hiring you because of. Not all was lost though, as there were some things to like in his winter ball and spring training numbers, which was pointed out this past March by a certain Baseball Prospectus writer:
First, he's 26 years old this year, and is coming off of a .341/.376/.543 half-season at Triple-A. He played in the Dominican Winter League this year, hitting .404/.450/.778 for the Gigantes, accumulating more extra-base hits (20) than strikeouts (14) over 99 at-bats. Scouts were impressed with his performance, making him somewhat of a sleeper to succeed this year for Los Angeles.
Fast-forward to spring training, and you see Morales hitting .405/.439/.649, with just three strikeouts in 37 at-bats. By itself this may not mean much, but when combined with the numbers from winter league ball and scouts' opinions of him, we see there's a reason to get excited about the Cuban import. Considering that his only competition for the job is Robb Quinlan, Morales will have time to work out the kinks and attempt to become the quality hitter his potential has suggested.
So, Morales got his starting job, and hit .306/.355/.569 with 34 homers. He struck out 117 times-a much higher number than you would expect-but there were some positives to this, as his walk rate increased to 7.5 percent and his P/PA jumped from 3.5 to 4.0, a massively needed jump that gave him the time to look for a pitch to crush, and also awarded him a few extra free passes. In summary, Morales was a completely different hitter, and pitchers couldn't just take advantage of his lack of patience and hacktastic ways any longer. Morales crushed fastballs this year, posting +11.2 runs above average on fastballs , while also excelling with curves (+11.3) and changeups (+5.2). Just to round things out, he even played quality defense: UZR had him at +5.9 on the year, while FRAA had him at +3. All in all, it was a pretty great year for a guy that projection systems universally reviled heading into the season.
The most important thing about his 2009 success is that it is a legitimate development from which we can expect more of the same going forward-Morales has serious power, and can harness it in-game now that he's displaying more patience. His .335 BABIP is a bit higher than the league average and his liner rates suggest it should be, but he can also afford to lose a few points off of his average in 2010 as long as he keeps the power production up. The most important thing for Morales will be retaining the patience he's acquired-as long as he can do that, he's going to remain a slugging first baseman, and the kind of player the Angels envisioned him as when they signed him to a six-year major league contract in the first place.