Reigning American League MVP Justin Morneau has seen a significant dip in his production following his award-winning campaign. Has the 26-year old first baseman already shown us the best season of his young career, and if so, how did he get there?

At only 18 years of age, Justin Ernest George Morneau was selected in the third round of the 1999 amateur entry draft. He signed with the Minnesota Twins soon after, and was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Twins for his professional debut. Thanks to an injury to his knee during his debut season, Morneau would also spend a significant amount of his second year as a pro playing for the GCL squad:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%     K%
1999 GCL Twins(Rk)     53  .302/.333/.396   31% .094    5     3.4%  10.3%
2000 GCL Twins(Rk)    194  .402/.478/.665   40% .263   21    13.3%   8.0%

Morneau didn’t shown any patience or power during his initial stint in Rookie League, so the Twins stuck him back there for the 2000 season as well. He boosted himself in both areas the second time around, as he posted a .263 Isolated Power and a walk rate of 13.3 percent to go along with a lofty .410 BABIP. Despite that unusual, really high hit rate for balls in play, it’s safe to assume that a guy who beats up Rookie League pitching for a few months could use a promotion to Single-A. Baseball America ranked the first baseman/catcher fifth in what was, looking back, a pretty stacked Twins system:

After wrenching his knee while sliding, Morneau didn’t even play in extended spring training until just before the Gulf Coast League started in June. A gamer, he came back fasted than expected and set GCL records for average and RBI. The Twins believe Morneau could be their No.3 hitter of the future. Shortly after he was drafted in 1999, he drilled several balls into the Metrodome’s upper deck. Prior to 2000, Morneau’s throwing mechanics were subpar. Though he showed improvement behind the plate and caught during the Rookie-level Appalachian League playoffs, he is best suited for first base. He has below-average speed but isn’t considered a base clogger.

The Twins would play Morneau at three different levels for the 2001 season as a first baseman:

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%   K%
2001 Quad City(A)    236  .356/.420/.597   37% .241   19     9.7%  14.1%
2001 Fort Myers(A+)  197  .294/.385/.437   29% .143   13    10.3%  17.1%

That dip in production upon his promotion Fort Myers was worse than it first appears; for Quad City, Morneau had a .387 BABIP that helped inflate his Triple Crown rate stats, although the .241 ISO is a good indication of his power potential. He was over his head at Fort Myers with a .353 BABIP mark, without the power but with a higher strikeout rate. Based on that the Twins probably should not have sent him to Double-A New Britain to finish off the season, but they did, and he managed just .158/.214/.184 with more strikeouts than hits.

Heading into 2002, Baseball America moved Morneau into the second spot for their organizational prospect rankings:

Nagging injuries held him back in each of his first two pro seasons, but after he had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, he earned two promotions in 2001. Morneau’s offensive ceiling rivals Joe Mauer‘s. His classic left-handed stroke draws comparisons to John Olerud, but Morneau projects to hit for more power than Olerud.

Morneau would draw two more assignments to New Britain before earning another promotion, but his initial stay in Triple-A wasn’t nearly as lengthy:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%   K%
2002 New Britain(AA)  494  .298/.356/.474   35% .176   35     7.7%  16.1%
2003 New Britain(AA)   79  .329/.384/.620   39% .291    4     8.1%  16.3%
2003 Rochester(AAA)   265  .268/.344/.498   39% .230   12     9.4%  18.7%
2003 Minnesota(MLB)   106  .226/.287/.377   33% .151    4     7.8%  26.1%

Morneau performed well at New Britain in 2002 despite an intestinal virus that caused him to drop 20 pounds before the season, but the Twins decided to wait and see if he would display more power before promoting him. His ISO jumped around 120 points from 2002 to 2003 at Double-A, so that question resolved, they promoted him to Rochester, where he was solid enough before the Twins thrust him into the big leagues. He wasn’t ready for that, as you can see by the spike in his strikeout rate and dip in his power.

Baseball America had Morneau ranked behind Joe Mauer heading into 2004, with some nifty tidbits to pull from the description:

Morneau has legitimate power with a classic finish and natural loft to his swing. He generates easy pop and has the plus bat speed to drive good fastballs. Morneau struggled with offspeed stuff in the big leagues and will have to adjust…Morneau will be just adequate at first base [defensively] despite working hard to improve.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 was very excited about Morneau, and PECOTA thought he could survive a full season in the bigs (.262/.327/.453) based on his minor league reputation:

What do the Twins do best? Drafting and player development. No organization is better at it than the Twins. In most organizations, Morneau would draw so much attention that he’d suck the oxygen out of the virtual prospect room. In this organization, he’s far behind Mauer in terms of recognition. Morneau’s not just going to be a good hitter; he’s going to be positively great. How great? Healthy, prime Fred McGriff great. He’s got a quick, compact stroke, and if he gets playing time, he’s going to be very good very soon.

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%   K%
2004 Rochester(AAA)  288  .306/.377/.615   51% .309   23     9.8%  14.4%
2004 Minnesota(MLB)  280  .271/.340/.536   47% .264   17     9.1%  19.3%

Morneau was ready to make the jump from Rochester to the major leagues after his repeat stint in 2004 showed that his power had developed to an incredible level, and that despite a BABIP that was around the league average, which legitimizes his numbers even further. Minnesota called him up in time to see him hit 19 homers in just under half a season of work, giving Twins fans hope for the future from their prospect development program. Obviously impressed, Baseball Prospectus 2005 was enthralled with Morneau as a big-time power hitter:

It takes a peculiar brand of genius to have “helped” Morneau take as long as he did to get here, but when you had a big league regular as lovably unpronounceable as Minky, that makes everything all right. Of course, with the threat of his leaving to bat cleanup for Team Canada in the Olympics in Greece, you could say that genius had a timetable. His glovework gets bad-mouthed, but that’s exaggerated Mientkiewicz-mongering in action; Morneau has the soft hands for the job, he just needs to improve his footwork. He’ll soon become one of the 20 best hitters in the league.

Soon did not mean 2005, was Morneau fell apart at the plate:

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%   K%
2005 Minnesota(MLB)  490  .239/.304/.437   42% .198   27     8.2%  19.2%

While massively disappointing, Morneau’s struggles can be explained by a few things, some of which were covered in Baseball Prospectus 2006:

…before the season even started, he had to deal with chicken pox, pneumonia, and appendicitis. Even considering that he was understandably weak coming into the season, what he did at the plate was significantly less than what the Twins expected from their young slugger. With all that behind him now, barring a bout of bubonic plague or career-ending leprosy, he should take a major step forward this season. He’s capable of being an MVP-caliber slugger.

Besides an offseason that sought to ruin him, Morneau also showed more line-drive and groundball tendencies in 2005, which meant his flyball rate dropped, which meant that he lost some power. These extra liners didn’t drop for hits, and they certainly didn’t go for homers like his booming flyballs; this may have been a case where Morneau was weaker and didn’t have his swing right for that reason. All in all, it’s a season you can probably toss out the window developmentally.

Without the laundry list of excuses to back him up like in 2005, Morneau would need to show the bat he displayed during his half-season of 2004. He rose to that challenge, and although he probably didn’t deserve the award, he won the MVP, just as his BP comment had said he someday may. His 2007 season has been very good as well, though not at the same level. There’s one item from his PECOTA comps that should be brought up, and Baseball Prospectus 2007 covered it, saying “One disturbing thing: his PECOTA comps have a scary number of big, Stiffly Stifferson first basemen who stopped hitting in their early thirties. The good news is that Morneau is at least one big free agent contract away from reaching the point where that’s a concern…”

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B    BB%   K%
2006 Minnesota(MLB)  592  .321/.375/.559   38% .238   38     8.2%  15.7%
2007 Minnesota(MLB)  500  .280/.346/.518   42% .238   30     8.9%  15.4%

You could say Morneau has seen a dip in his production, but outside of a drop in his BABIP he’s been the same hitter as last year. His ISO is the same, and his patience is less than a percentage point different. The 41-point drop in his batting average has more to do with his BABIP falling down to the .280 level that it should be at given his line-drive tendencies, rather than the fluke .335 of 2006. PECOTA nailed this one, giving Morneau a .293/.362/.526 weighted mean forecast of 2007.

What does this mean? That Morneau’s numbers going forward should look more like 2007 and less like 2006, which you can glean from his batted ball data:

Year  P/PA   FB%  LINEDR%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP  Diff.
2004  3.7   46.1%  16.2%  37.7%   9.5%  18.1%  .275   .282  +.007
2005  3.5   40.6%  18.5%  40.9%  11.0%  13.5%  .254   .305  +.051
2006  3.6   40.6%  23.5%  35.9%   9.2%  16.4%  .335   .355  +.020
2007  3.5   40.0%  16.3%  43.7%  11.0%  16.9%  .282   .283  +.001

This is a classic case of “one of these things is not like the others.” His 2004 and 2007 seasons are right where they are supposed to be, and his 2005 season was below average for reasons already discussed, although his adjusted line should have been .290/.355/.488, not too shabby considering the circumstances. As for 2006 though, yes, he should have seen a 20-point boost to his already inflated line, but that’s due to his fluky line-drive rate. That 23.5 percent figure from 2006 is high-it ranked 12th in the majors among qualified players in 2006. If you act like 2006 never happened, Morneau’s career liner rate in the majors is just 16.7 percent; it’s 19.3 percent counting 2006. Adjusting for that figure, we should have seen Morneau with a .287 BABIP in 2006, rather than the .335 he delivered.

There’s nothing wrong with a first baseman who is going to hit .290/.350/.525 or so, and there are plenty of teams who wish they had that production. Also, as his boosters anticipated, Morneau has also done well for himself defensively at first base the past few years, posting FRAA of +5 and +6 the past two seasons. Going forward, PECOTA forecasts more of the same over the next few years, with EqAs ranging from .289 to .294 from 2007 to 2011 in his age-30 season. Given that he’s matched his weighted mean forecast for this year, we shouldn’t see too much of a change in that. Morneau may not be an MVP caliber player again without a little luck, but he’s a great addition to the Twins lineup. He’s even a few homers short of where he should be after an almost month-long drought.

The real issues will come up when Morneau becomes eligible for free agency; the small-market Twins will probably let him walk and become someone else’s problem, if their payroll history is any indication. Certainly, those comps to “Stiffly Stiffersons” at first base might encourage them to let him go. It’s also reasonable to anticipate that Mauer’s injury troubles aren’t going to let him catch during the second half of his career. For now though, you can count on Morneau for steady, quality production, as well as a few monster, highlight-reel homers.

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