Is Washington Nationals' Michael Morse for real?

Mike Michael Morse was a good bat off the bench for the Nationals in the first half of this season.  After Josh Willingham went out with season-ending knee surgery and Morse became a regular starter, I waited for him to get overexposed.  The league would adjust, I thought, and Morse would fade.  So far, Morse has adjusted, too.  He's been successful enough that even the guys at fangraphs have noticed.  In 289 PA this year (about a half a season), he's had 13 HR and a 131 wRC+.  Before his surgery, Josh had 16 HR in 451 PA and a 137 wRC+.  Take a look at their hitting stats:

Age PA 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Josh Willingham 31 450 19 2 16 56 8 0 67 85 .268 .389 .459 .848 129
Mike Morse 28 285 12 2 13 39 0 1 21 61 .290 .351 .502 .853 128

Morse looks an awful lot like Willingham with less patience (although Josh defined patience this year) but more pop.  If he kept up that hitting line for a whole season, we're talking 25 doubles and 25-30 HRs! Could Morse be a new Hammer?  Is this legit--perhaps, dare I say it, 2 legit 2 quit?  A look at what the numbers hint at after the jump (with non-numbery summary at the end for the stat-averse).

(Pretty-formatted stats courtesy baseball-reference, ugly-formatted stats courtesy fangraphs. Stats as of 9/30/10.)

Updated to add platoon splits and "streaks" at the end.

First of all, let's take a look at his career hitting stats and see if there are any patterns:

Year Age Tm Lg PA 2B 3B HR SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2005 23 SEA AL 258 10 1 3 3 1 18 50 .278 .349 .370 .718 97
2006 24 SEA AL 48 5 0 0 1 0 3 7 .372 .396 .488 .884 131
2007 25 SEA AL 20 2 0 0 0 0 1 4 .444 .500 .556 1.056 184
2008 26 SEA AL 11 1 0 0 0 0 1 4 .222 .364 .333 .697 90
2009 27 WSN NL 55 3 0 3 0 0 3 16 .250 .291 .481 .772 101
2010 28 WSN NL 285 12 2 13 0 1 21 61 .290 .351 .502 .853 128
6 Seasons 677 33 3 19 4 2 47 142 .291 .353 .448 .801 115

Well, right away we can see that he's had about a season's worth of PA scattered over six years of big-league stints, with only two seasons (2005 and 2010) where he had substantial playing time--and they're five years apart.  His career 115 OPS+ (119 wRC+) is solidly above league average, and this year's numbers are pretty close to his career average, except for the higher SLG. That stretch from 2006-2009 is spotty enough that it will be hard to say anything meaningful about year-to-year trends.  I'll keep looking at them as we search for the trends, but I'm going to put an asterisk next to 2006 and 2009 as we go forward, and two asterisks next to 2007 and 2008 to remind you of the small number of PA in those years.

My first question is whether this is luck, and for luck, we look at BABIP. BABIP shows how many balls find grass instead of gloves.  We'll also put up his SLG and ISO (ISO = SLG - AVG) to show his power.

Year PA BAbip SLG ISO
2005 258 .341 .370 .091
2006* 48 .421 .488 .116
2007** 20 .571 .556 .111
2008** 11 .400 .333 .111
2009* 55 .303 .481 .231
2010 285 .333 .502 .212
6 Seasons 677 .349 .448 .157

Before I get to BABIP, look at that power!  His ISO doubled from 2005-2008 to 2009-2010.  League average is about .150, and a .200+ ISO puts Morse at the low end of legit power hitters (Zimmerman's ISO is .204; Dunn's is .281).  The air must have been heavier in Seattle, or else Morse may have really figured something out about hitting in the last couple of years.  Moving on to BABIP, that career .349 is way higher than the league average of .300, which suggests Morse is having a lucky run.  However, if we calculate his expected BABIP (based on speed, line drive rate and a couple of other things), we find that his career number should be around .329!  He's still lucky by 20 points, but that .329 is exactly his BABIP over his two years in DC.  If we calculate Morse's xBABIP based solely on his time with the Nats, it's .327, and looking only at 2010, it's .322.  It seems Morse has been having some good luck --but he still looks decent even if we shave off 25-30 points of OPS to compensate.

If Morse has "figured it out" somehow to account for the extra power, does it show up in his approach at the plate?  Let's take a look at what he's swinging at:

Season Zone% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
2005 53.4% 21.9% 67.1% 46.0%
2006* 52.5% 28.6% 65.6% 48.0%
2007** 44.8% 35.1% 60.0% 46.3%
2008** 47.8% 33.3% 77.3% 54.4%
2009* 48.2% 33.9% 68.3% 50.5%
2010 41.5% 36.2% 73.3% 51.6%

"Zone%" is the percentage of pitches he gets that are in the strike zone.  Pitchers seem to be throwing Morse fewer strikes over time--perhaps because he chases?  Looking at "O-Swing%," which is the percentage of balls out of the zone that he swings at, we see that not only is he getting more balls out of the zone, he's chasing more of them.  At the same time, he's swinging at more balls in the zone ("Z-Swing%"), and at more pitches overall ("Swing%).  What happens when he swings?

Season O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2005 43.3% 84.5% 75.4% 11.0%
2006* 41.7% 83.6% 71.8% 13.3%
2007** 46.2% 88.9% 71.0% 13.0%
2008** 62.5% 76.5% 72.0% 15.2%
2009* 44.7% 77.5% 66.1% 17.0%
2010 64.3% 78.5% 72.7% 13.7%

Now this is interesting!  Recall all those extra balls out of the zone he's swinging at?  He's making almost 50% more contact on them this season ("O-Contact%") than in previous seasons.  At the same time, he's making slightly less contact on balls in the zone ("Z-Contact%") versus 2005-2008, so his overall contact rate ("Contact%") is staying around his career average, as is his swing-and-miss rate ("SwStr%").  Has Morse inherited Guzman's "good bad-ball hitter" skills?  Perhaps he's figured out where he needs to swing to put a charge on the ball, and that area covers less of the zone and more out-of-the-zone.  Of course, that returns us to the threat of pitchers figuring out where that hole in the zone is and pounding him there.  Speaking of that, here's how Morse fares against a starter after repeated trips through the order (this table for 2010):

Split PA 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS tOPS+ sOPS+
vs. SP, 1st 73 3 0 6 18 3 13 .391 .411 .696 1.107 156 210
vs. SP, 2nd 69 3 0 4 6 6 15 .262 .348 .508 .856 100 129
vs. SP, 3rd 54 3 0 1 7 4 10 .280 .333 .400 .733 75 91
vs. RP, 1st 88 3 2 2 8 8 23 .231 .318 .397 .716 70 100

Recall that tOPS+ is Morse's split vs himself--it's how much better/worse he does in a spot versus his overall average, and sOPS+ is how well he does versus league-average for that spot.  You usually expect a batter to do better against a pitcher the more times he faces him in a game, but Morse actually does worse the more times he faces a pitcher.  Compare this to what we saw for Willingham in 2010:

Split PA 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS tOPS+ sOPS+
vs. SP, 1st 108 5 0 4 12 17 21 .216 .352 .409 .761 80 117
vs. SP, 2nd 105 3 2 5 20 11 23 .290 .371 .527 .898 110 141
vs. SP, 3rd 84 6 0 3 12 12 17 .309 .417 .529 .946 122 146
vs. RP, 1st 144 5 0 4 11 25 22 .261 .403 .409 .811 93 129

This is a little worrying.   Michael goes from far above league average on the first appearance to significantly below league average by the third.  Willingham starts off above league average and steadily gets better.  This suggests that Josh figures out what the pitcher is throwing that game and works out how to beat it.  Conversely, it seems that the pitcher figures out what Morse can hit, and then throws him something else!  That invites obvious questions: what are pitchers throwing to him, and what is he doing with it?

Here is the distribution of pitches Morse has faced:

Season FB SL CT CB CH SF KN
2005 64.9% 16.6% 2.2% 6.6% 9.0% 0.8%  
2006* 70.1% 10.3% 1.1% 4.0% 13.8%   0.6%
2007** 75.0% 10.3%   7.4% 7.4%    
2008** 62.2% 20.0% 6.7%   11.1%    
2009* 67.4% 15.1% 5.0% 6.0% 6.0% 0.5%  
2010 58.1% 17.4% 3.0% 10.1% 9.6% 1.3% 0.6%

Word seems to be, "stop throwing Morse fastballs," as he's seeing a lot more sliders ("SL"), curves ("CB"), and changes ("CH") this season.  Here's how he's doing against them:

Season wFB/C wSL/C wCT/C wCB/C wCH/C wSF/C wKN/C
2010 0.89 -0.89 8.46 1.39 4.19 -5.65 8.59

These numbers are runs above average per 100 pitches.  For example, if Morse got 100 curve balls, you'd expect to get 1.39 more runs than a league-average hitter would get against 100 curve balls.  Looks like Morse can hit the curve and the change better than most, but not the slider.  He hasn't seen that many cutters, knuckleballs, or splitters, so I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the big numbers there (memo to Riggs: sit vs. Pelfrey, start vs. Dickey).

So, is Morse for real?

Morse has put up good power numbers in the last two seasons, and it may have been by being more selective on what he swings at in the zone, as well as going after more out of the zone if he can make contact.  Along with this apparent change in approach, he's had a little bit of luck on hits falling in--maybe up to 25 points of OPS.  However, there are some warning signs: pitchers seem to figure him out over the course of a game, which suggests that the league as a whole might be able to do it over the course of a full season.  He's been able to adjust so far, even as he's been seeing fewer fastballs and fewer strikes, but it would be risky to rely on him as a starter next season.  Looking through pitch f/x data to see whether his swing has holes in it will be an interesting exercise for the off-season (but first I'll have to build a pitch f/x database...).

Addendum: Platoon splits and streaks

Souldrummer brought up a point I clean forgot: how does Morse hit righties?  Take a look at the platoon splits:

Split PA HR CS BB SO OBP SLG OPS tOPS+ sOPS+
vs RHP as RHB 194 7 1 11 39 .340 .466 .806 90 125
vs LHP as RHB 91 6 0 10 22 .374 .580 .954 122 153

He hits lefties better than righties, but he's had more that 2/3 of his PA against RHP, and he's well above league average against them.  As for streaks, here's how he's done month-by-month this season:

Split PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS tOPS+ sOPS+
April/March 6 0 .167 .167 .167 .333 -19 -8
May 11 0 .333 .455 .333 .788 96 121
June 39 3 .361 .410 .639 1.049 144 183
July 41 3 .385 .415 .718 1.133 161 202
August 92 4 .241 .272 .460 .732 69 99
Sept/Oct 96 3 .268 .375 .427 .802 92 125

Morse has hit league-average or better pretty much all season, with a bit of a slump in August as he went full-time.  He rebounded in September, though.  That's dueling adjustments, so we'll note them as signs of both concern and hope over whether he can succeed as a starter.

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