It's been 17 years since anyone not named Todd Helton has gotten the majority of the starts at first base. While the last few years of Helton's tenure weren't as stellar as his prime years, it was still jarring to see a clean-shaven face manning first on Opening Day. In the immediate aftermath of 2013, most people assumed first base would be Michael Cuddyer's domain; after all, he's an aging slugger whom defensive metrics hated in the outfield. It seemed he was destined for first base.
The Rockies front office went a different direction though, signing Justin Morneau to a two year deal. That decision was met with more head scratches than plaudits at the time. Morneau was three years removed from a season of more than one WAR, after suffering a near career ending concussion in 2010. Did this 33 year old slugger still have anything left in the tank?
Well, it's still too early to tell. Obviously. It's April. We are 17 games into Morneau's 324 game contract. But the early returns have been very encouraging.
Morneau is hitting a rock solid .346/.386/.538. His 139 wRC+ is third on the team to Charlie Blackmon and Troy Tulowitzki. Morneau's .873 OPS on the road has been especially welcome, as Rockies hitters find it notoriously difficult to keep their bats sharp away from Coors. Both of Morneau's home runs have come away from home; one was a shot to left center in San Francisco, the other was a bomb to right center in San Diego. Both of those dingers were hit to places where baseballs rarely leave the yard.
Perhaps most encouraging, his line drive rate is a career high 23.9%. Morneau's big power years are probably behind him (though he might reach 20 bombs this year), but if he keeps spraying line drives to all fields he's going to be a doubles machine. He already has four this season. Take a look at his spray chart this year. He's been going foul line to foul line.
So Morneau is hitting, thank goodness (even in his few at bats against lefties he has held his own). But he's also excelling in an area in which Helton had also spoiled Rockies fans: first base defense. Helton was rightly lauded as a scooping wizard, Merlin working at Baskin Robbins. And Morneau has been just as good.
The Rockies' infield defense is one of the most important edges they have on the competition. It's quite possible that between Nolan Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki, and DJ LeMahieu, the Rockies have the rangiest infield in baseball. As such, those guys are going to be flinging a multitude of balls Morneau's way, sometimes in ways that will involve a little dirt bath. If he can't handle them, it neutralizes one of the Rockies' greatest strengths. Luckily, he has been scooping tough hops with aplomb.
The Morneau signing was largely met with a collective shrug. But if he keeps performing at a high level, Rockies fans might sit up and take notice.