July 7, 2010. A 29-year-old Justin Morneau is enjoying the best season of his already outstanding career. His batting average sits at .345, his OPS at 1.055, he's well on his way to reaching the 30 home run plateau for the fourth time in five seasons, and his 4.7 rWAR puts him solidly in the race to either win his second MVP award or finish in the top two in voting for the third time in five seasons.
Morneau is not just an All Star, as he was for four consecutive seasons at that point in his career, he's one of the best players in all of baseball. Here's his number over the five year period from 2006 through 2010.
Batting Average: .298
On Base Percentage: .372
Slugging Percentage: .528
Home Runs: 136 in 2,979 plate appearances. (For comparison, Carlos Gonzalez has hit 132 home runs in 3,005 career plate appearances)
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Then, in one seemingly innocent looking incident in Toronto, Morneau's career was derailed. He suffered a concussion on the play after taking a knee to the head, and didn't play in another game all season.
The following year, Morneau was his own MASH unit. He missed separate chunks of the 2011 season with a wrist injury, a bruised foot, a neck surgery where pinched nerves had to be removed, and a shoulder injury that reignited his concussion symptoms from the year before.
On the wrong side of 30, Morneau's best years appeared solidly behind him. He made a moderate rebound in 2012 and 2013, playing solid but ultimately unspectacular baseball, and entered free agency with a three year running stat line looking like this...
Games played per season: 118
Batting Average: .256
On Base Percentage: .319
Slugging Percentage: .406
In this three year period, he also averaged just one home run every 37.5 plate appearances. In his peak years from 2006 though 2010, Morneau averaged a home run once every 21.9 plate appearances. In short, he wasn't even close to the same player he was before the concussions.
At first, Morneau drew very little interest on the free agent market. Even the Rockies, who ended up signing him, tried to land Jose Abreu first. Once that option fell through however, Colorado went to work on a plan that involved moving Dexter Fowler and his salary to free up the cash needed to ink Morneau. On December 13, 2013, the Rockies signed Morneau to a two year deal worth just under $12 million. ($5 million in 2014, $6.75 million in 2015, and a $9 million mutual option for 2016) Days later, the Minnesota Twins, who Morneau had spent over 98% of his career with to that point, gave Mike Pelfrey a very similar contract at two years and $11 million.
The Morneau signing wasn't met with much buzz. In fact, there seemed to be as much disgust about him wearing Larry Walker's old #33 as there was excitement about what he could actually do on the field. Several fans rolled their eyes at the idea of Morneau returning to his pre 2011 form now that he claimed he was fully recovered from all his concussions. This and moving to a hitter friendly park perfectly designed for his swing were two of the biggest reasons the Rockies gave for making the signing.
Well, here we are 45 games into 2014, and we now have to seriously consider if Morneau is returning to the player he was before the concussions. We're at that magical point of the season where a hot start could signal either small sample size or the beginning of a player transformation, so it's a perfect time to take a closer look at Morneau. That, and he just hit a walk off home run in the tenth inning of Sunday's game to give the Rockies a huge series win against the Padres.
Here's Morneau's numbers early in the 2014 campaign...
Batting Average: .327
On Base Percentage: .355
Slugging Percentage: .585
Home Runs: 9
Morneau also has a Winning Probability Added (WPA) score of 1.82 which ranks sixth in all of baseball. So he's not just getting hits, he's getting big hits. (He would lead the team in this metric if it wasn't for Troy Tulowitzki.)
So those numbers are obviously excellent, but can we take anything away from them to help us figure out if he's truly having a comeback season? Well, if we did a little deeper, yes - And it's mostly good news. Three things in particular stick out to me at this stage of the game.
1) Morneau is overachieving a tad, but the main peripherals don't reveal any obvious red flags.
With a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .323 and a Home Run to Fly Ball ratio of 21.4%, some regression is coming with both numbers. However, not nearly enough to rip apart his season.
Morneau's career BABIP is .294, but now that he calls Coors home, it's reasonable to expect it to be at least .300; well within shouting distance of its current position. He clearly passes this test.
The Home Run to Fly Ball ratio is a bit more complicated. 21.4% sounds like a bit of bad news because it means some regression is coming, but I actually think this is some of the best news of all. From 2006 through 2010, Morneau's HR/FB ratio was generally around 16%. After his concussions though, it dipped to just under 10% in the 2011 though 2013 time frame. The high HR/FB ratio out of the gate in 2014 may mean that his current home run pace (which is 33 bombs for the season) is unsustainable, but it also signals that much of his power that disappeared from 2011 though 2013 has come back. A 25 home run type season is very much in the cards if he stays healthy.
2) So far, Morneau doesn't look over matched against left handed pitching.
The 2014 sample size is still small when you break the numbers into splits, but the stats that normalize the fastest here already tell us some of the best news we're going to find. In 50 plate appearances against southpaws, Morneau has only struck out six times for a strike out rate of 12%. That's way down from the 21.3% he posted here in his 2011 though 2013 stretch.
Additionally, his slugging percentage against lefties in 2014 so far is .480; way up from the .272 figure his posted the previous three seasons. This is important because when Morneau was in his prime years of 2006 through 2010, he hit lefties to the tune of an .821 OPS. Then in the dark years the OPS dropped to .519 in these spots, and now it's up to .788 again in 2014.
It's important to note this can still swing rapidly, but so far, it supports the overall idea of Morneau not being the same player he was in 2011 through 2013 and that the Rockies found a real come back season here.
3) Justin Morneau is a more aggressive hitter right now than he has been at any point in his career.
This news is good, bad, intriguing, and probably the most important of all.
You only need about 150 plate appearances for strikeout rates to normalize and 200 plate appearances for walk rates to normalize. Morneau is at 169 plate appearances for the season right now, so if something's changed here, we can tell with a pretty high degree of certainty - And boy has it ever.
Morneau is posting both the lowest K% (11.2) and the lowest BB% (3.6) of any season of his career. He's putting the ball in play more often, and with his "use the entire field" approach at Coors Field, he's having some serious success.
The concern here though is if he's being so aggressive that's it's going to lead to problems going forward when opponents start to throw him more pitches out of the zone, especially early in the count. For his career, Morneau has swung at the first pitch 34.7% of the time. Certainly higher than the MLB average of 27.3%, but much, much lower than his 2014 figure so far which is all the way up at 45.9%. (The highest of any year of his career by a whopping 8.8%)
So far, this approach has helped him immensely with runners on base. Morneau has batted either fifth or sixth in 86% of his starts so far this season with the Rockies, so he's come to the plate with men on base quite a bit (45% of the time). With the opposing pitcher wanting to get ahead in these spots in order to avoid walks and putting more traffic on base, Morneau's attack strategy has worked to perfection. He has a .382 average and an an 1.163 OPS in these situations so far this season.
Since Morneau has never acted this way before as a hitter, we have very little to go off of in trying to predict how he'll fare going forward. I think we can safely say he's no longer the guy he was in 2011 though 2013, which is great news, but he's also not the guy we saw in 2006 through 2010 either. This may be less of a comeback season and more of a season where he's completely reinvented himself as a hitter. Well, at least in his approach at the plate anyway.
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One thing is for sure though, Morneau's been worth his weight in gold so far. Can you imagine how the last few weeks of baseball would have gone for this club at first base with both Michael Cuddyer and Wilin Rosario on the DL? Morneau has been a linchpin at first base this season, not only surviving and plugging a hole, but thriving as a key bat in the middle of the lineup. At $5 million for the 2014 season, he could prove to be a steal before we even reach the All Star Break.
We can't pin down exactly what he is yet, but it looks like it's going to be something significantly better than most people expected. Put him in the middle of a lineup that includes some combination of Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer, Wilin Rosario, and Nolan Arenado and it's a huge, huge problem for opposing pitchers. Morneau may be super aggressive at the plate right now, but opponents can't really afford to throw him too many pitches out of the zone with that cast of characters surrounding him.