One-time New York Mets' 1st Round pick Billy Beane was 27 years old with a .219/.246/.296 slash in 148 games and 315 plate appearances in which he'd hit 14 doubles and three HR's when he decided he'd rather move into the front office with the Oakland Athletics, who'd signed him as a free agent the previous November. As "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis quotes Beane explaining later in life, after he'd risen from a job as an advanced scout to become the Assistant General Manager within four years and then four years later the GM, he finally, at 27, saw the game passing him by when a new generation of players began coming up around him, "I was twenty-seven years old, and by and large you are what you are when you're twenty-seven."
Michael Morse turned 27 before the 2009 season. He had 102 games and 326 plate appearances at the Major League level on his resume and was coming off a 2008 season in which he'd earned a platoon role in left field with Seattle with a strong Spring but had torn his labrum on a diving play in the outfield after only 5 games. Morse started strong in '09 at Triple-A Tacoma in the Mariners' system, and had a .312/.370/.481 slash in 66 games and 289 plate appearances before he was traded to the Washington Nationals for then 29-year-old former Atlanta Braves' 3rd Round pick Ryan Langerhans.
In his short time at the Major League level with the Mariners, Morse had 18 doubles, 3 HR's and a .300/.365/.397 slash in 107 games and 337 plate appearances over four years, but he'd never appeared in more games in a season than the 72 he played for Seattle in his rookie season in 2005. Morse had a .339/.404/.558 slash at Triple-A Syracuse before he was called up to the nation's capital. Since then, Morse, who turned 29 this past March, has a .295/.355/.535 slash with 48 doubles and 45 HR's in 262 games and 865 plate appearances at the Major League level.
Can people finally stop doubting that Morse is legit? He's one of the rare late-career success stories that defies Billy Beane's logic that you are what you are at 27? Davey Johnson, who managed the future A's GM when he was a New York Mets' outfielder, appears in the book "Moneyball" questioning Beane's desire to be a ballplayer (p. 47), and in a press conference last week, Johnson said yes you can stop wondering about Morse because he's finally figured things out at the plate.
"He knows what he's trying to do. He knows his approach. He knows how they're trying to pitch him. He's got tremendous power the other way and obviously they're going to try to pound him in and he knows how to get at it. So, he knows the strike zone, he's learning more about the strike zone inside, and you see him taking more pitches, not even offering at them inside. That's when you know a hitter's got a good command of the strike zone and he also knows what they're trying to do."
Of course, in an early scene in the book "Moneyball" there's a scene described in which Paul DePodesta, then an Assistant to the GM, and his approach are first introduced to the A's scouts by Mr. Beane. The book's author quickly describes part of their belief system, and the idea that, "... the ability to control the strike zone was the greatest indicator of future success." The two Oakland executives were touting high OBP college bats who'd demonstrated a knowledge of the strike zone in school they felt would translate to the pro game as they scouted prospects, but they expressed the belief that, "...plate discipline might be an innate trait, rather than a something a free-swinging amateur can be taught in the pros."
It's still a relatively small sample size with Morse. In the last two seasons plus, as our in-house statistician discussed recently, Morse, age 27-29, seems to have figured it out at the Major League level, showing increased knowledge of the strike zone statistically and anecdotally, according to his manager. He's swinging at more pitches and making more contact inside and out of the zone, and in the process, in his late-20's Morse is setting himself up for big pay day in arbitration and in free agency in the near future.
Now the question is, is Morse's current rate of production sustainable? Some GM out there, be it Mike Rizzo with the Nats' or one the other 29 in the majors, is going to have to make that decision. Was Morse underrated? He claims he just never got the chance to show what he could do in a sustained run. Morse is finally earning the respect of his peers, will someone out there overrate his talents now, neglecting the inevitable declines that arise as a player enters his 30's? Or will the late-bloomer continue to produce?