Morgan Ensberg has had somewhat of an up and down career during his four seasons as the starting third basemen for the Houston Astros, with two elite level seasons at third base mixed in with a very good but injury riddled 2006 and a down season in 2004. His shoulder limited his ability to play full games and dropped his batting average 35 points below his career number. Whether or not that is still going to be a problem remains to be seen, as shoulders are often troublesome.
Morgan Ensberg was selected by the Seattle Mariners in round 61 of the 1994 amateur draft, but chose not to sign. Instead, Ensberg attended the University of Southern California, where he would hit 40 home runs, leaving him behind only Mark McGwire, Geoff Jenkins and Eric Munson on the all-time USC list. The Astros drafted him in the ninth round of the 1998 amateur draft, and he signed shortly afterward. Ensberg made his professional debut at Auburn in the New York-Penn League that same year:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Aub.(A-) 196 .230/.388/.367 .434 36% .137 11 18.4% 20.4% Kis.(A+) 427 .239/.353/.412 .358 41% .173 27 13.4% 17.7%
He was old for both levels, since he was already in his age-22 season upon his exit from USC. The walk rates are fantastic, and his Isolated Power numbers are not bad; his low batting averages kept his slugging percentage down fairly low, but he did have some power in his first taste of the minors. His batting average on balls in play at Kissimmee was just .270, which goes a long way towards explaining the low batting average. BABIP is higher at the lower levels of the minors, so .270 is even further from the average than we normally think of at the major league level. Ensberg was also a decent base stealer during his first two years in the minors, although he has not done much with that since.
Ensberg would be promoted aggressively due to his age, and ended up in Double-A Round Rock for the 2000 season. He would do very well and earn himself a September call-up for a short spell, and carry his progress over to Triple-A New Orleans in 2001:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Rou.(AA) 483 .300/.416/.545 .429 43% .245 34 15.5% 18.1% New.(AAA) 316 .310/.397/.592 .434 44% .282 20 12.2% 16.3%
Ensberg had no trouble adjusting to the higher levels of the minor leagues; in fact, he thrived there, hitting for power–51 homers and 54 doubles over those 799 at-bats–while walking and cutting down on his strikeouts. His BABIP figures were just a bit above the average for the levels, at .336 and .322 respectively. These were significant gains after two poor BABIP campaigns in the early goings of his career.
Ensberg’s playing time did decrease in Triple-A thanks to a broken hamate bone in his left wrist, but Baseball America liked his increasing polish at the plate and ability to be at least an average defender in the majors, ranking him the number 15 and then number 7 prospect in the organization following the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
Baseball Prospectus 2002 was a big fan of Ensberg:
Ensberg broke his left wrist at the end of June, which cost him six weeks and might have saved him from being dangled as trade bait. He bounced back to have a great August and a huge winter season. Although he’s not toolsy, his defense has gotten generally good marks. While the Astros are almost falling over themselves denying that they’re considering Ensberg their third baseman, don’t be surprised if he’s starting by May 1. You could make a glib comparison to Sean Berry, because like Berry, Ensberg was relatively old before breaking in. The difference is that Ensberg does everything just a wee bit better than Berry did.
Ensberg would come back to earth a bit in the 2002 season, starting in Houston for April and May before being sent back down to Triple-A and replaced by Geoff Blum and Jose Vizcaino:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% New.(AAA) 292 .288/.401/.421 .318 26% .133 15 14.2% 15.9% Hou.(MLB) 132 .242/.346/.394 .303 38% .152 9 11.8% 16.3%
Ensberg’s BABIP was an above average .336 at New Orleans, but his low .279 mark under Jimy Williams in Houston was enough to get him demoted, as his rate stats were not up to snuff. Interestingly enough, Ensberg’s line drive rate was 19.8 percent in the majors that year, meaning his BABIP of .279 was .039 below its expected mark; Ensberg’s line should have been around .281/.385/.433 if he had been given enough plate appearances to even out the small sample size, a marked improvement over his actual line.
Baseball Prospectus 2003 was not thrilled with Houston’s handling of potential star Ensberg during 2002:
A preseason darkhorse for Rookie of the Year, Ensberg instead fell victim to Williams’ short leash and long memory. He got off to a so-so start, but was still outhitting the Astros’ other third base candidates before being scapegoated for the team’s hitting woes and demoted in late-May.
PECOTA forecasted a .263/.359/.459 weighted mean line for the 2003 season, which fits in line well with the adjusted line above from 2002. Ensberg did a bit better than that for himself though, hitting .291/.377/.530 for the year while also earning 9 FRAA at the corner:
Ensberg was excellent in his time for the 2003 Astros. Although they did not play him much in April and May, he was hitting so well that they could not ignore his performance–.294/.402/.553 is somewhat difficult to miss over the course of two months. He would finish right around those marks, but would see a decrease in performance during 2004. This was somewhat odd, as Ensberg’s BABIP for 2003 was below his expected BABIP, meaning he did not outperform what he should have. He did, however, underperform in 2004, with a difference of .034 between his BABIP and eBABIP-his line should have been somewhat closer to .309/.364/.445; this is still a disappointment following 2003, but a better season than the actual. The year 2005 was a return to the real Ensberg, as he hit .283/.388/.557 for the season, even with a deep bruise in his hand slowing him down towards the end of the season.
The drop in production in 2006 is not much of a mystery. Ensberg injured his shoulder, and it affected his performance at the plate. What is more of a question is how much he will be able to bounce back in 2007 for an Astros team in desperate need of run production:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2006 387 .235/.396/.463 .473 45% .227 18 20.7% 24.8%
Ensberg’s ISO was still an impressive .227, but his batting average was a low .235. Thanks to his incredible walk rate-Ensberg walked in over one-fifth of all plate appearances during the season-he managed to stay productive and post an OBP just a tick below .400, despite hitting .235. Considering Ensberg’s age, a spike in his walk rate seems odd, since his bat should not be slowing down as of yet. His shoulder injury most likely slowed down his bat speed though, and forced him to take pitches he normally would have swung at; pitchers did not attempt to challenge him and take those walks away, since he did still have his power game intact.
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2002 3.9 38.7% 19.8% 41.5% 4.5% 7.3% .279 .318 +0.39 2003 3.7 41.3% 20.5% 38.2% 9.8% 18.8% .290 .325 +0.35 2004 3.6 34.5% 20.4% 45.1% 8.4% 7.9% .290 .324 +0.34 2005 4.0 45.4% 17.2% 37.4% 8.4% 19.3% .305 .292 -0.13 2006 4.2 47.6% 14.6% 37.8% 7.2% 16.4% .254 .266 +0.12
Ensberg’s 2004 slide makes a bit more sense when you look at the 7 percent increase in groundballs and decrease in flyballs; as a flyball hitter, you hurt your BABIP, but there are usually more extra-base hits than there would be on the ground, and Ensberg’s performance suffered for it, although he did hit .299/.349/.477 after the Jimy Williams firing. As for his 2006, we can see a significant drop in line drive rate with an increase in flyballs, as well as a serious dip in BABIP. Ensberg could get a slight boost in his performance from the .012 difference in BABIP and eBABIP, but if his line drive rate was anywhere near previous levels-or even his somewhat reduced 2005 season of 17.2 percent-he would have had an even more impressive line. As is, his .291 EqA is nothing to sneeze at, even if it is heavily walk influenced.
Looking at his hit charts, Ensberg is actually becoming more of a pull hitter in the air over time:
Ensberg’s shift to become more of a pull hitter on line drives and flyballs is a smart one, as Minutemaid Park has an extremely short porch in left field; of his 16 homeruns at home in 2006, 13 of them were in left or left center, with 17 of 20 in left/left center during 2005. Ensberg has always hit more of his home runs to left than right during his major league career, but the shift in direction is even more significant in the past few years, rising roughly 10 percentage points for flyballs and 27 percentage points on liners.
PECOTA forecasts a line of .263/.374/.484 with 482 plate appearances. Given that PECOTA does not know exactly what his injury was-a shoulder problem that limited his swing and forced him to pick his pitches carefully while not really adversely affecting his power overall-it’s safe to say a healthy Ensberg could reach his 75th percentile projection of .278/.390/.520 with a 15 percent walk rate and 51 extra-base hits in 506 plate appearances. Whether his shoulder will continue to bother him or not is another issue, but he was given time off in favor of Aubrey Huff during 2006 solely so he could recuperate and be ready for 2007. That the Astros let Huff sidle away to the Orioles with nary a peep out of the Houston camp reflects their belief he will be healthy for the coming season.
Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc’s other articles.
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