We've been asking whether Michael Morse is legit since his breakout season last year, and more than one baseball analyst has been waiting for him to get "exposed" with regular playing time, with pitchers figuring out the holes in the big man's powerful swing. So far, it hasn't happened (much to the relief of Nats' fans). Current Nats' skipper Davey Johnson believes in Morse, as Patrick reported earlier today.
Of course, it'll only be possible to say that Morse was "for real" after he's succeeded for season after season. Even then, who knows how long it will last, or how quickly it will change (I'm looking at you, Adam Dunn)? Still, we can take a look at the stats and try to tease out whether a player seems to be doing something different, making some sort of adjustment or taking a new approach that's leading to success. I'm going to argue that the answer for Morse is, "yes."
Usual caveats about small sample sizes apply, since we're dealing with about two season's worth of PA. Data courtesy of fangraphs and baseball-reference, as of games of 9/6/11.
Okay, let's start with the top line. Morse has been hitting well this year, and he's improved for the last three seasons as he's gotten more playing time:
Now, I know that's only about two season's worth of PA spread over 7 years. Still, look at the years he's had at least 100 PA--he was about league average or better in 2005, 2010, and 2011. In 2010 and 2011, he was way better than league average. 2010 looks fluky compared to 2005-2009, but 2010 and 2011 look a little more convincing. Those career numbers are starting to look pretty beefy, too, although they're dominated by 2010/11, which make up about 3/4 of Morse's career PA. Let's look a little deeper:
Morse's rise in OPS+ has been accompanied by a jump in power. His isolated power (ISO) went from .110 in 2005-2008 (years of being a rookie and/or injured) to .230 or so in 2009-2011. His big jump in OPS+ has been accompanied by a a steady increase in BAbip (or 'hitting luck'), but as we've already discussed, Morse hits a lot of line drives, so you'd expect him to have a high BAbip (about .330 or so). This year's 150 OPS+ and .356 BAbip may be a hot season, but his career 131 OPS+ fits in rather nicely with a .330 BAbip. Speaking of line drives...
(note, I'm not showing the 2005-2008 data from here out because it's too SSS.)
|2009||11.1 %||61.1 %||27.8 %||0.0 %||30.0 %|
|2010||15.8 %||46.3 %||37.9 %||5.2 %||19.5 %|
|2011||19.1 %||44.5 %||36.4 %||5.6 %||20.6 %|
Big Mike hits a lot of liners, and he's been hitting more of them. Perhaps this is the real, "ah-ha!" for him, and Eckstien really is teh jeenyus. His LD% nearly doubled from 11% in 2009 to 19% in 2011. That supports a high BAbip. Interestingly, most of that increase in LD% has come at the expense of GB%. Morse hits the ball hard and in the air; if you've got the power, elevating the ball will pay off. And given Morses's 20% HR/FB rate (about twice league average), elevating pays off big, especially since he's still hitting plenty of line drives.
I know, what about adjustments? Won't the league figure him out? Well, they've had two seasons, but let's take a look. Here are the pitches Morse has been seeing over his career:
|2005||64.9% (90.7)||16.6% (82.7)||2.2% (84.5)||6.6% (75.2)||9.0% (79.1)||0.8% (81.0)|
|2006||70.1% (88.8)||10.3% (84.7)||1.1% (81.0)||4.0% (77.0)||13.8% (77.4)||0.6% (71.0)|
|2007||75.0% (91.7)||10.3% (83.3)||7.4% (75.2)||7.4% (81.2)|
|2008||62.2% (89.3)||20.0% (80.1)||6.7% (88.3)||11.1% (82.3)|
|2009||67.4% (90.9)||15.1% (81.8)||5.0% (83.5)||6.0% (74.2)||6.0% (81.9)||0.5% (79.0)|
|2010||58.6% (91.4)||17.1% (83.4)||2.9% (88.2)||9.8% (75.9)||9.8% (82.0)||1.2% (85.7)||0.6% (79.3)|
|2011||58.2% (91.7)||17.4% (83.3)||6.2% (87.9)||8.2% (77.0)||5.9% (82.0)||2.0% (85.9)||2.1% (76.4)|
As you'd expect, he's seeing fewer fastballs and more sliders. A few less curves and changes and a few more splitters/knucklers, although the latter is probably because of the Mets rotation more than the book on Morse. How much difference is pitch type making? Here's a table of how much better or worse than league average Morse is versus different pitch types:
As a pitcher, you hate to see this. In 2011, Morse is above average against every pitch but the knuckleball. He's been getting better every year against the fastball, and he's apparently figured out how to hit sliders, too. The other pitches suffer from SSS, but the trends are all in Mikey Mo's favor. And speaking of trends in his favor, let's consider patience:
|2009||33.9 %||68.3 %||50.5 %||44.7 %||77.5 %||66.1 %||48.2 %||17.0 %|
|2010||36.5 %||73.3 %||51.9 %||63.7 %||78.8 %||72.6 %||41.8 %||14.0 %|
|2011||38.2 %||70.4 %||52.4 %||67.2 %||85.4 %||78.0 %||44.3 %||11.4 %|
In spite of Mike's fairly low walk rate, he's seeing a pretty steady diet of pitches in the strike zone (Zone%)--a bit less than league average, but you figure he's going to get pitched carefully. What's more interesting is that Morse is swinging at more pitches. He's swinging at more pitches overall (Swing%), with most of the increase from swinging at more pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). But what's most interesting is that he's making contact more often when he swings (Contact%), both in the zone (Z-Contact%) and out (O-Contact%). He's not just up there hacking--he's finding more pitches to hit, and he's hitting more of them. The improvement in contact is steady over the last three seasons, and it's accompanied by a delightful and steady drop in swing-and-misses (SwStr%). Mind you, Morse's contact and whiff rates are still worse than league average, but he more than makes up for that by how hard he hits the ball when he makes contact. Unless he had LASIK in the off-season, I think this is a sign of a player who's Figuring It Out. He's learning (or has learned) what he can hit and what he can't, and he's doing it. Morse is for real.
(Some minor edits after initial publication.)