Kendrys Morales and the “Big Bat” Myth

Dave · September 5, 2013 at 10:32 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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:

Eric Hosmer 589 0.300 0.354 0.445 0.348 118
Jason Heyward 405 0.253 0.347 0.423 0.342 118
Shane Victorino 472 0.294 0.351 0.449 0.352 117
Jed Lowrie 576 0.287 0.346 0.431 0.340 117
Torii Hunter 573 0.301 0.335 0.465 0.347 117
Neil Walker 469 0.262 0.351 0.413 0.337 116
Mike Napoli 514 0.253 0.344 0.456 0.349 116
Carl Crawford 408 0.294 0.346 0.414 0.334 116
Howie Kendrick 451 0.301 0.341 0.437 0.337 116
Kendrys Morales 568 0.280 0.336 0.443 0.340 115
Nate Schierholtz 430 0.259 0.310 0.492 0.343 114
Justin Smoak 445 0.251 0.348 0.415 0.339 114
Chris Carter 506 0.220 0.320 0.454 0.338 114
Pablo Sandoval 505 0.279 0.335 0.421 0.329 114
Jean Segura 574 0.304 0.337 0.438 0.338 113
Coco Crisp 496 0.260 0.331 0.437 0.334 113
Dustin Pedroia 638 0.296 0.371 0.411 0.345 113
Everth Cabrera 435 0.283 0.355 0.381 0.329 112

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 562 0.279 0.336 0.444 0.341 115 (1.4) (5.0) 0.9
2007 Jose Vidro 625 0.314 0.381 0.394 0.345 111 (4.1) (0.9) 1.1

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.


77 Responses to “Kendrys Morales and the “Big Bat” Myth”

  1. eternal on September 6th, 2013 12:49 pm

    Don’t flame me for getting these details wrong but keeping Jaso and simply purchasing Swisher and Bourn on the open market which should have been doable based on what they got in salary would have netted out to 5-6 wins over Morse/Morales/Catch of the day using the WAR of Bourn (1.6), Swisher(1.6), Jaso (1.2) to Morales (.9) and Morse(-1.2). No dramatic change in the results but better and I’d much rather have the former to watch.

  2. JasonJ on September 6th, 2013 12:53 pm

    I can’t imagine anyone giving up a draft pick for Morales and it’s very unlikely that any of the teams with a top 10 draft pick would have any use for him. Giving him a QO makes no sense at that point.

    I know we are starved for competent bats on this team and that’s what Morales is, but paying $14 M for a 1, maybe 2 WAR player is bad business.

  3. eponymous coward on September 6th, 2013 1:52 pm

    I don’t have any belief that not giving a Kendrys a qualifying offer will lead to any better investment in a different player based on what I’ve seen in the past.

    That’s completely fair, and completely frustrating (and the reason why this front office is so disappointing).

    Again it comes back to calling him a mediocre hitter for some reason.

    “mediocre player“. All the words count. Playing baseball is not all about dingers and hitting.

    Advanced statistics calls Morales out as being a ~1-1.5 WAR player for the last two years. That’s actually somewhat worse than mediocre, as an average player of the course of a full season of plate appearances is around 2 WAR.

    Paying 14 million for a 1-1.5 WAR player is indeed overpaying for a mediocre player, no matter how you slice it.

    Yes, the Mariners have bad hitters and a problem with talent. Overpaying for a mediocre player because he’s not a bad hitter doesn’t fix that. Given that the team has a lot of problems, allocating an excess of resources to no-defense+speed/hit-first players doesn’t fix enough problems.

    This team can add Ellsbury and a J. Vargas to go with Kendrys and still have a payroll not over 90 million.

    I have no evidence that this management group is going to expand payroll dramatically in the offseason- they haven’t the last two years under similar cicrumstances, the attendance has flatlined, the team’s not taking steps forward. If they do, and they make good signings to go along with a one year overpay on a Morales qualifying offer, OK, fine, but I think it more likely that a Morales overpay leads to more “hope and pray the kids are as good as we think, and surround them with veteran-y goodness that doesn’t cost much”, like last year.

  4. okdan on September 6th, 2013 1:54 pm

    Gordon Gross over at Seattle Sports Insider has written a very strong response to this post, that I think is worth reading. Essentially, this decision (and all others) aren’t made in a vacuum. You must consider the merits as they relate to the current circumstances. Which is, most of the players that Dave lists as “better” on that list either 1. aren’t available, or 2. cost so much money that they aren’t realistic options.

    Apologies if cross posting like this isn’t allowed, but I think it’s a thoughtful continuation of this conversation.

  5. eponymous coward on September 6th, 2013 2:18 pm

    I don’t really think that link changes anything, or addresses Dave’s point. It’s pretty easy to say that signing Ibanez and the whole set of Mariner offseason moves was better than doing absolutely nothing, given that this would have left us with playing guys like Peguero full time, in the sense of the syllogism of “we need to do something; this is something; therefore, we need to do this”. So sure, in that sense Morales is an improvement over any number of other bad moves for $14 million.

    What Dave is pointing out is the M’s syllogism is flawed here. Is Morales better than using a replacement-level DH? Sure, this is very clear. Is that a good way to spend 14 million on what is clearly a flawed team, if you assume the team isn’t going to expand payroll (which is what they’ve done the last few years since the Bavasi era implosion)? Probably not. If the M’s decide they can add 20 million in payroll? Sure, fine, overpay Morales for a year, no big deal. If overpaying Morales means we punt on improving the rotation? That’s a problem.

  6. CCW on September 6th, 2013 2:31 pm

    Well, the link doesn’t change anything, but it makes some good points. I like this one: “The QO removes the need for the bidding war and exchanges dollars for certainty.” Whether Kendrys is worth $14mm is debatable. I certainly could be convinced he’s not. However, crossing DH off the list without going backwards is a worthwhile end in itself, because you just don’t know what you otherwise might end up with.

  7. fivespot on September 6th, 2013 3:01 pm

    Much of this conversation has taken place without mentioning the ‘other’ Mariner DH. If we extend a QO to Kendrys, and he accepts, then we can expect to see a lot of Raul in the outfield again. And that would be bad. Very bad.

  8. amnizu on September 6th, 2013 3:17 pm

    The opposing view reads more like the classic definition of loss aversion ( than an actual argument for Morales. 14 M on the market should buy about 3 WAR, or it can buy under 2 with Morales. Seems like an easy choice to me.

  9. djw on September 6th, 2013 3:43 pm

    He may not be your cup of tea defensively or on the basepaths but he’s Not a mediocre DH via looking at every other DH this season and it’s nice to have someone from the top 1/2 not the bottom 1/2 of the pile for once.

    I can understand the impulse to ignore defense for players you plan to DH, and it’s at least a partially defensible strategy (although it hurts your flexibility, so it shouldn’t be discounted entirely). But I can’t for the life of me wrap my mind around why you think baserunning doesn’t matter. It counts. If you’re -5 or more runs on the basepaths, that’s the same in terms of value as being a moderately worse hitter who is an average baserunner. You’re taking “Designated Hitter” a bit too literally here.

    However, crossing DH off the list without going backwards is a worthwhile end in itself, because you just don’t know what you otherwise might end up with.

    This is just a weird argument. People who can hit OK and not play the field just aren’t that hard to find. Zduriencik did it this year, signing Ibanez, who should have been a DH. Ibanez overperformed at the plate, sure, but this isn’t that hard.

    In other words, if Zduriencik used that money to upgrade 2-3 WAR elsewhere, which is what it should buy, and found himself looking for a DH on the cheap, it’s really not that hard to find someone within ~1 WAR of Morales; something Zduriencik has done before.

  10. djw on September 6th, 2013 3:45 pm

    14 M on the market should buy about 3 WAR, or it can buy under 2 with Morales. Seems like an easy choice to me.

    Bingo. I don’t know why everyone seems to think it’s more complicated than this.

    I feel like I’m at a bar that’s charging 11 dollars for a pint of Bud Light, and everyone else refuses to consider going to the bar down the street because “we don’t know what we’re going to get.”

  11. okdan on September 6th, 2013 3:45 pm

    Don’t forget that there is also value in the virtue of it being a 1 year deal, as opposed to a 6-7 deal. With those other theoretical 3 WAR players, sure you might get your money’s worth in year one or two. But what about years 3 – 7 where you’re not getting the production? With Kendrys and his QO, at least you know you’re not on the hook for those decline years.

  12. MrZDevotee on September 6th, 2013 4:04 pm

    Taking the “out of a vacuum” idea into the fold…

    Assuming he stops sucking completely, don’t we already have a Kendrys Morales on our roster, who is the same exact guy with the same exact underachieving skillset (minus the switch hitting)?

    His name is Jesus Montero… And he’s younger, and under team control for much less money.

    If he returns and can figure out how to make contact again, he probably pencils out to provide about exactly what Morales does. And there’s only room for one of them.

    Bottom line in my mind:
    Kendrys Morales = Jesus Montero

    And we only have room for one guy who can’t play a position on the field.

  13. MrZDevotee on September 6th, 2013 4:11 pm

    “We only have room for one guy who can’t play a position in the field”

    (Excepting the 2013 roster, of course)

  14. bookbook on September 6th, 2013 4:16 pm

    There’s a real point to the crosspost. On the other hand, any time you’re paying 14 million for 7 million in value, there must be some massive opportunity cost to overpay by a mere 3-5 million instead. The M’s can’t afford to pay double what players are worth and put together a contender. We ain’t Yankees Northwest.

  15. SonOfZavaras on September 6th, 2013 5:07 pm

    I’m intrigued by this idea: signing Franklin Gutierrez and making HIM the principal DH and only occasional OF.

    He’d be cheaper than Morales, could actually play a position, wouldn’t block Montero (IF Jesus can figure out hitting at the major league level…I have my doubts)- and he could probably offer comparable offensive value to Morales IF he’s off the field and kept healthy.

    Wouldn’t you rather see HIM run the bases than Morales?

    To be honest, this sounds like a creative solution for an organization that could use a few.

  16. JasonJ on September 6th, 2013 5:16 pm

    Relying on Guti to do anything other than getting hurt/sick is asking for trouble and a waste of a roster spot. I like him but I think everyone is better off if he and the M’s go their separate ways.

  17. Eastside Crank on September 6th, 2013 6:17 pm

    This is a great analysis by Dave and hopefully the FO will agree with it. For those of you who keep insisting that the Mariners desperately need to overpay no-tool ballplayers, consider the Angels J.B. Shuck. He was picked up in the off-season for a minor league deal and has turned into a rookie of the year candidate (an outfielder no less). Good players are out there and the front office needs to show its savvy and find them.

  18. MrZDevotee on September 6th, 2013 6:30 pm

    In a relevant story– CBSSports is reporting that Nelson Cruz’s agents approached the Rangers last season about extending him at $14 million a year (pre PED’s situation) and they said no.

    I know I’d rather have Nelson Cruz for $14 million… He currently has the best “traditional power numbers” of any free agent to be (27 HR’s, .330 OBP, OPS+ 124, 2.2 WAR, in 108 games).

    Just sayin’, $14 million should buy more ballplayer than Kendrys Morales– and I’d actually put myself in the camp of liking Morales.

  19. MrZDevotee on September 6th, 2013 6:34 pm

    Not arguing with you, but pointing out just how random being “savvy” and finding the right guys actually is…

    Take the Angels, like you mentioned…

    1) picked up a minor leaguer who becomes a potential MLB Rookie of the Year.

    2) Paid huge money for non-playing Pujols and
    declining-awfully Josh Hamilton

    3) Mike “Why Didn’t Anyone Else Draft Him” Trout

  20. Eastside Crank on September 6th, 2013 8:18 pm

    MrZ, you are not helping the FO’s case. Pujols and Hamilton were available to the Angels because the Mariners were unable to sign them. I did not like either of those options due to the large amounts of money involved and felt that the Mariners got lucky they signed elsewhere. The Mariners have lots of people employed to find new players. They need to make better use of them.

  21. terryoftacoma on September 6th, 2013 8:23 pm

    The question is will the Mariner’s offer Morales a QO. Even Dave admits they probably will. If that’s true than debating whether they should is moot. On most teams he’s not a middle of the order bat which shows just how bad our offense is.

    Is there help in this seasons FA market? At this point it depends on who you listen to. Pence, Ellsbury,and Choo will probably get QO. Beltran, Grunderson and Cruz might. After those there isn’t much out there in the area of our needs.

    We don’t need to resign Guti to DH. He’s already ours on a team option for 7.5 mil.

    None of this we will know for sure until after the WS and we see who is offered what by their current teams.

    Debating an unknown, in my oopinion, is useless. I choose to wait and see.

  22. Paul B on September 6th, 2013 8:29 pm

    Boras wins either way.

    If the M’s make a qualifying offer, he takes it (after negotiating for something longer term).

    If the M’s don’t make a qualifying offer, he goes for a multi year deal somewhere, without the anchor of the signing team having to give up a draft pick.

  23. Don Money on September 7th, 2013 1:13 am

    Do you really think Nellie Cruz would put up the same numbers in Safeco that he gets in the Texas bandbox? Morales looked surprisingly adept at first, the only drawback was his back stiffening up after too many consecutive days in the field. He showed he could spell Smoak periodically. He is also hitting without much protection in this line up. Pay the man! With all the stats being kept, is there a site that really takes into account the dimensions of the ball parks on offensive stats? With the uneven schedules, comparing stats from homer happy AL East parks like NY, Tampa, Boston, Baltimore with those from more cavernous fields like Safeco, Oakland, and LA is hardly fair.

  24. ripperlv on September 7th, 2013 7:50 am

    I would rather the M’s go after a real bat like McCann who can play and will be a DH as he ages and Zunino matures. The problem is we never go top notch, always going after guys like Morales, Morse, Byrnes, Sweeny and it gets us nothing. But one bat is not enough to get this rig down the road. Need to get some quality like Ellsbury/Choo/Garza. Yes just a silly dream, but my real point is that Morales is a waste of time if we are really trying to build a winner.
    Note to JZ: Morales is another no defense DH, We need quality position players. Hello. Oh BTW, that is players as in plural. We have not so much in the minors, so it’s time to open wallet, get players. Hello.

  25. LongDistance on September 7th, 2013 11:40 am

    The Mariners will no doubt QO Morales and for several simple reasons (in various shades of gray). The Boras Effect won’t be at work much here, since Morales is a Known Known.

    The Mariners, under Jack Z., have developed a Known Knowns management style, rather than the sort of hail mary, Unknown Unknowns style that resulted in fiascos like Richie Sexson.

    Morales will happily sign and return (anywhere else, he looks like chump meat), which is like saying we went shopping and came back with a gallon of milk, a pound of hamburger, and a pack of toilet paper.

    How I’d love to see the M’s take, at least partially, a Known Unknowns track this fall (go raid the Braves, for instance) looking for some speed and excitement, and a couple of toolsy veteran slap hitters ($$$), this winter.

    And give Felix some breathing room.

    This conservative Known Known approach, is approaching boredom. Better an exciting, total flameout disaster… than this smoldering down to ashes we watched this year.

  26. Dobbs on September 7th, 2013 10:34 pm

    “All three times, the player lost.”

    The worst deal of the 3 Boras had them sign was 3 years, 33 million, not necessarily a loss.

    Soriano got 2 years, 28 million, that’s a win.

    I think it’s very possible Boras hasn’t learned his lesson yet just because he didn’t get his initial asking price.

  27. eponymous coward on September 9th, 2013 10:42 am

    We don’t need to resign Guti to DH. He’s already ours on a team option for 7.5 mil.

    Signing a guy to, in effect, a one year, 7.5 million dollar deal whose games played since 2010 are: 92, 40 and 28 has to be the height of silly.

    But then again, these are the Mariners we’re talking about.

    Guti has shown zero ability to stay healthy, This team needs healthy OFers/DHs, not ones made of glass.

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