Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Cool Story of Michael Morse

Close your eyes if you will and picture Michael Morse in your head. Got it? Okay, does that look like a shortstop? No, right? But that's what he was drafted as way back in 2000 (third round by the White Sox) and that's where he played his first six years of his ten-year minor league career. The easiest thing to state in this entire piece will be that Michael Morse doesn't fit anywhere on the diamond. He was too big as a shortstop. He played some third base. He's played first. He's played in the outfield. In 2006, Morse got a cup of coffee with the Mariners. He played six different positions (if you include DH). There's no real way to hide him. But boy can he mash a baseball!

His story is fascinating. He comes from Fort Lauderdale, one of this writer's favorite places on earth. He played for the Davie, Florida high school team, one of the best Florida towns on earth. He was drafted by the White Sox, traded to the Mariners and traded to the Nationals straight up for Ryan Langerhans (how did that turn out, Seattle?). During his long wanderings around minor league baseball, he tore his labrum diving for a ball against the Angels. He tore a meniscus that cost him most of 2008. He was suspended for using PEDs. Seattle converted him away from short because they had Yuniesky Betancourt. Yeesh. And it's not like he tore it up in the minors. His lifetime slash line there was, .271/.330/.425. So where did this come from?

Oh sure, you can point to the PEDs and say that was it. But that was way back in 2005 and to be sure, his tests have been scrutinized ever since. So don't throw that accusation around. It seems that he came back with a vengeance after his lost 2008. He mashed the ball in the minors in 2009 and though he started slowly in 2010, the Nationals called him up May 16th of that year and he's been killing the ball for the Nationals ever since. He loses value with his defense and base running, but with the bat, he was terrific in 2011. He was tenth in ISO, fifteenth in wOBA, tenth in slugging, nineteenth in batting average, thirteenth in wPA and seventh in home run per fly ball percentage.

He was remarkably consistent in 2011. Morse had a .879 OPS at home and .937 on the road. He had an .886 OPS in the first half and went at a .935 clip in the second half. His OPS against left-handed pitchers was .892 and it was .915 against right-handed pitchers. He started slowly in April and finished slowly in September but was fantastic in all the in-between months. He ruined the Phillies' rotation to the tune of  a 1.170 OPS. His OPS was over one against the Cardinals, Dodgers, Astros, Brewers and Rockies. Three of those teams were in the playoffs. Only nine of his thirty-one homers were pulled. Eighteen of them went to center and nine went to the opposite field. Sixty-seven of his 158 hits were for extra bases.

If there is any knock against Morse besides his fielding and base running, it has to be his plate discipline. He struck out 21.9 percent of the time (136 total) and walked only 6.3 percent of his plate appearances. He had only 31 non-intentional walks all season. But he does get hit by pitches regularly. He was hit thirteen times last season. He swung at 34.8 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. That's a lot. And that number is right in line with his career line, so it's not like he's going to change.

So where does he go from here? The Nationals just signed him to a two-year deal (avoiding arbitration) worth $10.5 million. Morse was worth $15.1 million last year alone, so that could be a steal. Three projection systems have him regressing slightly, but not by much. So projectionists are somewhat bullish on him being a force in the Nationals' line up for the future.

Michael Morse has hit 46 homers in his last 788 at bats. Home runs are back to being a premium commodity. The "Beast" has basically come out of nowhere at a later age than most. In a career that has a lot of twists and turns, it's hard to root against the guy. It will be very interesting to see if he can continue to be this good a hitter going forward. This Fan will be watching his boxscores in earnest.

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