Monday, August 22, 2011

The Mike Morse Post

Let's get this out of the way first: Mike Rizzo deserves mad props for uncovering the beast that has become Mike Morse in 2011.

I had no idea that Morse had this kind of season in him--though in my defense, I don't know anyone else who did either. Baseball Reference has Jason Michaels as the most comparable player in league history to Morse through age 28, and PECOTA's 90th percentile projection for Morse this season (i.e. the outcome with a 10% likelihood of occurring) was .312 / .374 / .505--a peg below what he's actually done.

I considered the Morse for Ryan Langerhans deal a junk-for-junk non-move, the kind of deal where two teams trade players they've both gotten tired of, only to later learn why the other organization wasn't interested in holding onto their guy in the first place. If anything I figured Langerhans had a better chance at giving the Nationals at least some value in the future because of his glove.

And then at the start of this season I criticized Rizzo for taking a really good bench player and pressing him into full-time duty where I expected him to get exposed.

Now we know that Rizzo absolutely picked Jack Zduriencik's pocket. (Geez, the Mariners could use Mike Morse's bat right now, eh?) If Mike Morse never gets another hit for the Nationals, this will be one of the most lopsided deals we've seen since 2005.

It's really hard to underestimate how good Morse has been. His .319 / .369 / .557 line puts him just shade below the MVP contenders. His .395 wOBA is third best among all first basemen in the NL, and if you wanted to play some arbitrary end-points games and chop off his slump at the start of the season, you could probably pull some numbers that look positively Pujols-like

Put it this way: if the season ended today he'd have the second highest single-season wOBA of any Nationals player since the team came to Washington (trailing only Nick Johnson's massively under-appreciated 2006). That's right--Morse has been a more valuable all-around hitter for the Nationals than Alfonso Soriano, Adam Dunn, or Ryan Zimmerman ever were. And we're talking about an essentially free talent acquisition, the biggest out-of-nowhere season by any player not named Bautista in years.

(Speaking of Jose Bautista, how come people wanna speculate about him being on the juice but we never ever hear that about Morse? I mean, Joey Bats has never been linked to steroids ever, which is more than we can say about Morse. I don't have any evidence, but since I keep waiting for someone to be irresponsible enough to bring it up, why not me?)

Now it's time for me to do what I do and splash some cold water. First, let's remember that Morse is not young. He's 29 years old, which is usually at or just a bit past most players' peak years.

Second, we need to remember why this guy toiled around mostly in the minor leagues in three organizations for basically a decade having the career of Jason Michaels. He's been injury prone for his entire career. He's not a very good defender, even playing on the extreme end of the defensive spectrum (errorless streak and comps to Adam Dunn notwithstanding).

And most of all, he rarely if ever takes a walk, which until this season has prevented his 5 o'clock power from ever actualizing in game situations. And that's a part of his game hasn't improved at all this season--his unintentional walk rate is a Guzman-esque 4.7%. It's just incredibly rare for any player to be able to be as productive as Morse has been this year while drawing so few walks.

How rare? Well, let's see. Morse is at 23 walks so far this season, about 0.2 per game played, and there are 39 games to play. So that would mean he's in line for about 8 more walks for the year if he plays more or less every game.

Let's be a bit generous and say that Morse will finish the season with 35 walks. Here's the list of every player in the expansion era since 1961 who has had a 153 OPS+ (same as Morse's this year) while drawing 35 or fewer walks: Tony Oliva in 1971 and Andre Dawson, Chet Lemon, and Bill Madlock (oddly) all in 1981.

So you're talking about a player who at age 29 is displaying a skill set that not only has he personally never displayed, very few players in the last 50 years of baseball have ever displayed.

Does that mean the Morse's season is just a giant fluke? Well, to an extent, yes, it probably does. But Morse might continue to be a useful, even quite good player for another year or two (beyond that is probably expecting too much).

He's really cut down on his strikeout rate since coming to Washington, and that should continue to help him. And he can be equally below average defensively at a couple different positions, which gives the team some flexibility in finding places for him to play.

But I don't think the team should stop trying to replace him. I'm interested in seeing Derek Norris at first base, and if they want to make a run at Prince Fielder (or I guess Pujols) this off-season, Morse shouldn't stop them.

One good thing is that Morse is still under team control for another year, so there shouldn't be any risk of giving him some big contract, at least not yet.

Bottom line, Nationals fans should really enjoy this season, take it for what it is, but don't start raising your hopes too much. Things that have virtually never happened before are pretty unlikely to ever happen again.


Cheryl Nichols said...

He goes by Michael now. :)

pauloyd said...

Couldn't agree with you more, although I love watching the guy play. Definitely has star qualities with his enthusiasm, power, and quirks at the plate.

I too secretly worry about PEDs but testing is working now right?

Assuming all is well, I think Rizzo cashes in on his value this off-season in a trade.

Doc said...

You've undervalued his defense at
1st base. He's better than Fielder, and most other 1st basemen not named Pujols.

OF fielding is definitely not his forte, but having come through the minors as a SS, he can deal with popups, liners, and ground balls as well as any guy at 1B.

His batting skills are not really a surprise, and could easily have been predicted from his past minor/major league stats.

jon antonucci said...
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jon antonucci said...

HATER. Really every time I read your posts I have a hard time understanding your perspective. I used to like this blog but now I think you're just looking for sour grapes. This team has turned a corner, and still has more work to do, but Morse is a big part of this. You're so sure because something isn't normally done that it can't be sustained. Flawed rationale. Morse looks like a player who is coming into his own and we forget so often that some guys develop LATER than others. Not everyone peaks at 27 (gasp!). To say he will be productive for only one or two more years is vastly underselling his talent. Watch the games please, this guy can rake. He's always raked at literally every stop he's been...whether its minors or majors. He's just now learning how to use all fields and trust his natural ability. Stay tuned Steven, this is another opportunity for you to eat crow.

Did you see the walkoff on Friday Steven? Tell me again, why should we trade Zimm when he's under team control for 2 more years and we have $$? Do you want more prospects that we have to wait 2-3 seasons for??? jeez

Steven said...

Wait, I said the guy is nearly the MVP, and I'm a hater? I think most impartial observers would say if anything I'm being a homer.

Anonymous said...

A couple things here:

He's under team control until 2013. That means you can see what he does next year and still sign him to an extension without having to risk him to immediate free agency.

The biggest knock against Morse last season was the hole in his bat. he seems to have filled it up.

No need to rush to sign him for big bucks now, but I don't see him falling off a production cliff any time soon. You mention that he hasn't been able to stay healthy, but have you seen some of the hits he's taken this year! Every time I start to worry that a pitch off his arm is going to end his season, he comes back a few days later with a multi-hit game.

To sum it up, outliers exist. Is it statistically hard to see Morse continuing to crush at this rate for another 3 years? Maybe. But from a "Look at this guy!" perspective, maybe it's not so hard.

jon antonucci said...
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jon antonucci said...

You're a hater because you spend a 1/4 of this document giving Morse props, and 3/4 of the document telling how it won't continue. You also drop the roid bomb on Morse when it's completely irrelevant, that makes you a hater (were talking '03 here, cmon man). There have been plenty of power hitters who don't walk a ton and are productive.

'Bottom line, Nationals fans should really enjoy this season, take it for what it is, but don't start raising your hopes too much. Things that have virtually never happened before are pretty unlikely to ever happen again.'

You were wrong about the Langerhans trade. I hope he proves you wrong again.

Harper said...

It's not odd they were all in '81. They didn't play a full season then

Wally said...

I think that I agree generally with your post. You didn't even mention BABIP, which though dropping lately, is still 7th in all of baseball.

But where I disagree is contract: I would offer Morse a contract for the two remaining years of control at a discount to what arbitration would offer - maybe 2 yrs, $8m or so (I am just guessing here, that may be a little low) BUT also get 1 or 2 team option years at $12m or so. That way, if he truly is a Bautista late-blooming type, the Nats have some protection. Since Morse hasn't made any 'real' money yet, I think that contract structure would be appealing to him.

wreckhouse said...

I join many of these comments in disagreeing with much of the overall negative tone of your piece. The worst statements had to do with panning his defense at 1B. I rate him at least average for all MLB 1B men.I suspect Morse will continue to surprise on the upside. And another thing, it is not true that no one saw ahead of time what kind of year Morse was going to have. I published a FanPost late last season (see posts by Wreckhouse on Federal Baseball)projecting his 2011 to be .280 BA, 30 HRs, and 110 RBIs. I believe the power number, and esp. RBIs, were held done by having LaRoche, Werth, and Zim substitutes surrounding him in the lineup for many weeks.

Steven said...

People seem especially worked up that I'm not sufficiently praising Morse's defense. I said "not very good," and folks feel really strongly that he's "better than Prince" and "at least average."

OK, whatever. He seems pretty awkward over there to me, and I've never read a scouting report that called him a plus defender at any position. The advanced metrics agree.

But if people want to put him in the hall of fame and resign him for a massive salary for his glove, fine, go for it.

@wreckhouse: RBIs? Srsly? Not on this site my friend.

jon antonucci said...

C'mon Steven this is getting ridiculous. When did anyone say hall of fame or a huge contract?

The argument I'm making is that you are SO SURE that he won't be able to duplicate this. Still unsure how you can say that given he's always raked. Some guys bloom late. All I'm saying is this is a valuable asset to have for maybe 3-5 more years. At least give him the opportunity to show it, rather than burying him for anything past next year. Nats will have him under control and if he duplicates this again, 3/36 sounds reasonable. And obviously, no hall of fame.

Steven said...

@jon--You're just not reading what I wrote.

I didn't say I'm "so sure" he wouldn't repeat his current level. I said "pretty unlikely." So if you're disagreeing with me when I say he's "pretty unlikely" to repeat this season, I guess you think he's likely to repeat it? Very likely? A mortal lock?

And I didn't "bury" him. I said he could definitely remain a valuable player. But I also said the Nationals shouldn't let Morse stop them if they want to pursue Albert friggin' Pujols. Because if Morse stays so good, they can put him in LF.

Your position I guess is that you would PASS on Albert Pujols because it would be so unacceptable to dispace Morse from 1b? Is that what it takes to not be a hater? You have to believe that Morse blocks Pujols?

If you want to read someone who will do nothing but jizz over the team, you can read Nats 320 or listen to Bob and F.P. There's tons of that stuff out there. But if you come here and put words in my mouth and not even bother to respond to what I actually wrote, you're gonna get ripped.

How about if you respond to the evidence I've provided? Does it give you no pause at all that no player in the expansion era has EVER put up his OPS+ with such low walk rate in multiple seasons? That it's happened only 4 times period, thrice in a strike-shortened season?

jon antonucci said...


I think you're getting a little upset. First off, it's ridiculous to let Morse stand in your way of signing Pujols...because he's an all time great and Morse is not. That's an insult to my intelligence. I'm not looking to read someone who 'jizzes all over the team,' I like to read various perspectives and weigh in my opinion. If you don't like it, too bad. And I did read what you wrote, and you went as far as saying your interested in Norris at first. That's laughable at this point the way Morse is playing. Also look at the stats, do you want to see a .200 hitter at AA playing in the bigs? Something tells me he needs more time...

To address your concerns about walking, to be honest, it doesn't concern me. Would I like him to walk more? Of course. But honestly, he's hitting with power to ALL FIELDS so I don't want to change his approach. His aggressive approach has still lead to a .320 ba and 51 extra base hits, and we still have a month plus to play. You want to change that? And if you want to talk BABIP, I know, from watching all the games, that MORSE DRIVES THE BALL. I get so tired of you sabermetric lushes. When you hit the ball on the screws you're going to have a high BABIP because you're driving the ball consistently. And that's exactly what Morse has been doing all year.

And againnnn back to your original point, NOT EVERYONE PEAKS AT 27. That was the main theme of your article...don't lock this guy up because it's a flukey season with an aging player. I'll contest to the end this is a late blooming player, who has raked at every stop he's been, growing into his own and honing his massive power. I'm not getting carried away with expectations, but your original certainty that he has 1 more productive year really irks me. If you watch baseball as long as I've been watching you can tell a hitter, and you also know that not every player follows a 'typical' career path.

jon antonucci said...

to clarify one last point...I don't expect Morse to hit .320 forever, he will drop off...but even if he hits .280-.300 consistently with power, the Nats have a PLAYER. I think that average range is very realistic.

amo said...

This debate is probably pointless (and I stopped reading after "sabermetric lushes"; you lost the argument right then and there). Steven's find that Morse is having a, based on his skills, outlier season of historic proportions is a very, very good and interesting one.

You can always argue about certain specific points in the post (maybe Steven was too harsh on his defense at first), but overall, there is no way to disagree with his fundamental assessment on any kind of sensible basis: Great steal by Rizzo, and Morse has been playing much better than most people would have thought. Also, he has been one of the luckiest players in baseball this year, and it is very unlikely that he'll have another season like this (or even close to this).

Jon, you know Morse drives the ball from watching? I'm sorry, I trust the numbers (which actually, unlike the mind, record each and every event) more than your recollection of some of his at-bats (what is any human mind more likely to remember, the weak groundout in the first or the line-drive home run in the 8th?). On Fangraphs, where all these sabermetric lushes hang out, there is a neat little stat called Line Drive %. Morse's is 19,5, which is decent, but in no way even near the best in baseball (there are a few around 28%).

So, if a high LD% helps a high BABIP (which it probably does): why does Morse, with a rather average line drive %, have an abnormally high BABIP, and not all these other hitters who hit MORE line drives than he does? Unless you can answer that question with anything other than "luck" or "chance" (which you can't), your point is wrong.

Then again, maybe the stats are all wrong and he just gets rewarded for playing the game the right way. Especially on some of the Nats broadcasts, that seems to pass for analysis nowadays.

jon antonucci said...

....because he hits the ball in the seats you sabermetric geek. are you serious, line drive %? ugh man go on with your bad self man. ill watch the games. you should too some time, rather than staring at that screen. btw, don't question my's all there. and if you don't believe me, just check the numbers :)

Steven said...

BABIP does not include HRs. "In play" /= HR.

Mike Liszewski said...

Morse has been a stud ever since returning from the injury that took him out of nearly all of 2008. Whatever he did during rehab, it paid off in spades. Still, he had only eclipsed 120 games in season (at any pro level) twice prior to 2011.