The Washington Nationals re-signed first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $24-million contract Tuesday, solidifying the only fluid positional situation they had left headed into 2013. Barring injuries, their Opening Day lineup will feature Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos.
A big name is missing from that set. Michael Morse hit .296/.345/.516 over the past three seasons, missing time with injuries but slugging consistently when in the lineup. Morse hit 64 homers in what amounts to two seasons’ playing time over those three years, with batting averages on balls in play always over .330 despite his being glacially slow. He’s a poor fielder, but a very good power hitter, and not just the kind who guesses and yanks at balls.
Speaking of which, the New York Yankees have taken some interest in Morse since news of LaRoche’s return has spread. They’re in the market for a right-handed batter with plus power, and need to find some players whom they can slot in without violating their self-made commitment to spend under $189 million on players in 2014, thus getting a reset on the rates they pay for excess spending under MLB’s luxury-tax system. Morse is the perfect fit. He will be a free agent at season’s end, and will cost just $7 million in 2013. He has a small observed platoon split (132 wRC+ against lefties for his career, 126 against righties, meaning he was 32 percent above average hitting southpaws, 26 percent against northpaws (I’m the only one who calls them that, still hoping it will catch on)), although admittedly, his career is not yet a large enough sample to say for sure he has no or even a very small split.
What really suits Morse ideally to the Yanks, though, is his opposite-field power. He hit 10 home runs to right field in 2012. He drives the ball in that direction. At six-foot-five, 230 pounds, he certainly can afford a measured swing, and to let his strength carry balls out of the park. His ability to stay on the ball like that might help explain his small platoon split, actually. At the plate, he reminds me of Richie Sexson, who was more angular but who also used brute strength to drive the ball despite very squared shoulders and a center-to-right-field approach. There’s no better place for that kind of hitter in baseball today than Yankee Stadium. The Yankees collectively had the best opposite-field rate of home runs per fly ball in the league last season, mostly because Russell Martin and Derek Jeter both joined Morse among baseball’s five best in homer rate on hits the other way. Right field in the Bronx is a vacuum, and fly balls that get within 20 feet of the wall out there simply get sucked over it. As you can see below, Morse would have lost just one of his 18 home runs from last season in Yankee Stadium, and that in left-center. He probably would have netted five or six by getting an extra few over the wall in right-center.
One of the peculiar things we have learned about the game, as publicly available batted-ball information has gotten more and more detailed, is that more often than you might think, batters–even good power hitters–pull the ball mostly on the ground, and hit the ball in the air mostly to the opposite field. This is especially true of right-handed batters: It seems to be almost an evolutionary instinct, whereby guys learned early on that getting the ball to the left side of the infield is better than hitting it to the right side, but that driving the ball the other way would keep the defense honest.
Anyway, Morse is an especially extreme case study in this phenomenon. For his career, he has hit 62.9 percent of all his pulled balls on the ground, and only 14.8 percent for true fly balls. Going the other way, he lifts the ball 53.3 percent of the time, hitting on the ground only 22.6 percent. When he does pull it in the air, that’s game over. For his career, those pulled flies leave the park 41.9 percent of the time. Looking at the graph above, that shouldn’t shock anyone. Morse’s pull power is Stantonesque; he’s no less prodigious, just less prolific. On those flies hit the other way, Morse’s career HR/FB rate is 11.4 percent. That’s not in league with the 20 percent he sported on such hits last season, but it remains roughly 70 percent higher than the league norm. He has big power, from foul pole to foul pole. Those are all good things. Morse doesn’t only punish mistakes, and he’s not a crude sort of power hitter whose only tool is the long fly. It’s easy to forget when looking at him, but he’s a .295 career hitter, in nearly 1,700 plate appearances, and again, you can’t just go to your slider-spinning right-handed specialist and check Morse off the list for the inning.
On the other hand, there are major flaws in Morse’s game. I mentioned he’s glacially slow, but wish to retract that: it insults glaciers’ speed. Morse has been worth -9.1 runs in base running alone the past three seasons, and remember, that’s while playing in only 346 games. He’s also such a miserable defender that, even though he has missed time and only plays first base and left field, he cost the Nationals 28.4 runs with his defense over those years, according to FanGraphs.
Bill James rated Greg Luzinski the 35th-best left fielder of all time in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, 12 years ago or so. In it, though, he wrote the following about the man they called ‘The Bull’:
Luzinski was a tremendous hitter, but in addition to being a big, slow guy, he had no arm at all. He couldn’t throw the ball across a room. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t run or throw, though; there are some guys who can’t run or throw who are pretty good outfielders anyway, and there are some guys who can run and maybe even throw OK, but are just bad outfielders … Luzinski, even operating within his limitations, was just a bad outfielder. He had dreadful hands, and he had no confidence in his ability to make a play, so he played everything timidly except the wall, which he seemed to be in denial about … If a ball was hit deep he had no idea whether it was going to hit the wall and come back or not, so he would chase fly balls to the wall, only to see them rocket past him on their way back to the infield. Everything hit out there was a surprise to him; nothing was ever easy. It was like having Herman Munster play left field.
All of this applies to Morse. He’s a clodfoot, he has no idea where the ball is going to land when it leaves the bat and his arm (which, like his instincts, should be much better, because he was at one time a shortstop prospect) scares no one. He’s better at first base, but not much better. I know I swung you to Luzinski, but moving in to first, go back to picturing Sexson.
One other major flaw presents itself: Morse does not draw walks. It’s strange that someone with his power and lack of obvious vulnerabilities doesn’t simply get pitched around at least six or seven percent of the time, but the fact is that he has drawn only 68 unintentional walks in 1,298 plate appearances the last three years. That’s a thin 5.23-percent unintentional walk rate. It’s not a huge, huge deal in Morse’s case, or at least it wouldn’t be so far as the Yankees may be concerned. Morse is such a good hitter for both average and power, or so it seems so far, that he can get away with not walking all that much. It may mean he will age poorly, but dealing for him would likely be just a one-year investment on New York’s part.
Plugging Morse in as the DH (because until one of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Ichiro get hurt, one cannot, in good conscience, put Morse in the field), the Yanks’ Opening Day lineup would probably be Gardner, Jeter, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Granderson, Morse or Kevin Youkilis, Youkilis or Morse, Francisco Cervelli and Ichiro. That’s actually still really good, just not as good as it would have been in 2009.
One thing: This would be the ugliest Yankees lineup in some time. Morse and Youkilis are on the All-Ugly Mug Team, maybe the captains. Even when Alex Rodriguez comes back, they’ll only be roughly back to where they started, and if Gardner or Granderson were to get hurt before then, the team might as well get rid of its organizational ban on facial hair, just in the name of helping a few of them hide behind something. It’d be great for the Yanks to get a little more of that, from a PR perspective. It’s not a real effect, you understand, but Yankees fans have lately come by the feeling that the team is a bunch of soft pretty men, and Youkilis and Morse would be the perfect pair to give the lie to that notion.
Off the rails.
The point: Morse is perfect for the Yankees’ home park and for their lineup. They need him far worse than the Nationals do. Finding just the right deal to get Morse to the Bronx might be tough, but it could be great for both sides.Next post: Two-Strike Hitting as a Risk-Reward Exercise, Starring Jayson Werth
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