Kendrys Morales and the “Big Bat” Myth
I consider Ryan Divish a friend. I make a point of hanging out with him every time we’re in the same city, and while we don’t always agree on everything, I like talking baseball with him and reading what he has to say. So, none of this is an attack on Divish. Don’t take it that way.
In the last few weeks, there’s been a decent amount of conversation about what the Mariners should do with Kendrys Morales. I noted a few weeks back that I think Morales has played himself out of the qualifying offer, and the reality at this point is that if the Mariners make him a $14 million offer for one year, he’s going to take it, because he’s simply not going to get anything close to a better offer from a team that also has to give up a draft pick in order to outbid that price.
After Morales hit the game winning home run last night, Divish wrote these paragraphs in his postgame blog:
The Mariners need Morales, who also doubled in the game, for more than just this season. If you look at their current roster set-up and what’s available in the minor leagues, they simply don’t have a traditional middle of the order hitter, who is comfortable in that role.
Morales has no problem with hitting in the No. 3 or 4 spot.
“I have over 500 at-bats in the middle of the line-up,” he said. “There is no reason to feel any pressure or feel any different.”
But how he feels about coming back to Seattle for another year or beyond is an unknown. Morales is a free agent after this season, and his agent Scott Boras is notorious for taking his clients to free agency over signing contract extensions. With a lack of power hitters in this free agent class, Morales could make more on the open market than an extension from the Mariners or the one-year qualifying offer of around $14 million for the 2014 season.
As I stated above, I think the last sentence is just wrong, but the reason that people keep stating that Morales is going to get some big offers in free agency is in the first section: the idea that Morales is a “traditional middle of the order hitter”. And, really, unless you have the most liberal definition of that term in history, it’s simply not true.
There are currently 173 hitters who have accumulated at least 400 plate appearances so far this year, or about six roughly “full time” position players per team. If we’re defining “middle of the order” as #3/#4 hitters, then one definition could be the top 60 hitters in baseball, since 30 teams with two line-up spots per team. This is a pretty rigid definition, but if talent was evenly distributed, it would work out as a decent definition for a guy you want up with men on base.
Of those 173 batters, here’s where Kendrys Morales rates in various offensive metrics that pertain to things that people generally want in a “middle of the order” hitter:
wRC+: 72nd (115)
SLG: 73rd (.443)
ISO: 83rd (.163)
Morales doesn’t qualify in the top 60 of any of these measures. His slugging percentage puts him squarely between Starling Marte and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Isolated slugging is a little better judge of just pure power, though, since it subtracts out singles, which are probably not something we’re super concerned with when defining a “middle of the order” hitter; by ISO, he’s in a four way tie with Matt Carpenter, Justin Smoak, and A.J. Pierzynski.
Really, though, if you’re evaluating a hitter’s performance, you should care more about the overall value than exactly how they get there, since getting on base and avoiding outs matters too, and isn’t included in the power measures. So, wRC+ gives us a better view of Morales’ overall batting value, where his 115 grades out as 15 percent better than average. Here’s a full list of the 400+ PA players with a wRC+ between 112 and 118 this year:
Morales’ hitting — not including his baserunning, which makes him a less effective offensive player than wRC+ shows, but we’re just talking hitting for now — puts him between Howie Kendrick and Nate Schierholtz. In the same range as Morales, we find a bunch of shortstops, a couple of second baseman, a few center fielders, a left fielder with a center fielder’s skillset, a couple of disappointing first base prospects who haven’t developed into quality players yet, a lousy season from Kung Fu Panda, and a decline phase Mike Napoli.
On that entire list, Napoli is the only one besides Morales that anyone might call a “middle of the order hitter”, but that’s because a couple of years ago, Napoli posted a 178 wRC+ and was one of the dominant offensive forces in baseball. He’s not that anymore, but reputations linger for a while.
Morales, though, this is what he is, and has always been. His career wRC+ is 117. Last year, it was 118. In his career year back in 2009, before he broke his ankle, he posted a 136 wRC+, which is okay but still nothing spectacular for a “middle of the order hitter”, especially if we cherry pick their very best season.
Morales’ peers with the bats are generally pretty good up-the-middle players or bad corner guys. He’s hanging out with the likes of Jed Lowrie and Neil Walker, who are valuable because they hit this well while playing shortstop and second base respectively. This is how well Torii Hunter hits, and despite the fact that Torii Hunter is a pretty good outfielder and can also run the bases with some talent, the Angels didn’t make him a qualifying offer last year. Morales can’t play the field and is the worst runner in baseball, but apparently none of that matters because he’s so good at hitting.
Except he’s not so good at hitting. He’s okay at hitting. He’s not bad. He’s above average, even. He makes a decent amount of contact and drives some balls out of the ballpark. He takes a walk once in a while. He’s a switch-hitter, and he’s even learned how to hit lefties. He’s not an offensive black hole.
But, really, the idea that Kendrys Morales is a “middle of the order” hitter is a total myth. No one else who hits like Kendrys Morales gets that label, because players with this kind of offensive performance generally aren’t one of the two best hitters on their team. On a good team, these guys are the third or fourth or fifth best hitter, and as you will note from the names around him, the rest of the players who hit like this get value by playing a position and running the bases.
Evaluating players by labels or batting order positions is a lousy idea anyway, even when those labels are true. In this case, it’s entirely undeserved. Kendrys Morales might have experience hitting 3rd or 4th, but that is the exact same excuse that Bill Bavasi gave when he acquired Carl Everett to be DH back in 2006. He’d hit cleanup before, and he had a bunch of RBIs, so he was qualified and necessary to make that line-up work. Except, you know, we all saw how that turned out.
But, really, Morales isn’t 2006 Carl Everett. He’s a lot better than that. In reality, Morales’ offensive production makes him a pretty close approximation of the guy Bavasi acquired to replace Carl Everett at DH. We’ll just close with the following comparison.
2013 Kendrys Morales is is basically a rehash of 2007 Jose Vidro. It’s a few more homers and a few less singles, but the package is basically the same. No one thought Jose Vidro was a “traditional middle of the order hitter”. No one should think Kendrys Morales is either.