For Justin Morneau, heavy regression might not come

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It was a foregone conclusion that Justin Morneau’s early hot streak was a mirage, but after two and a half months, could the Rockies' new first baseman be for real?

As of Sunday afternoon, the original purpose of this post was going to be to explore the expectations that the reader could reasonably have for new Triple-A call-ups Tyler Matzek and Christian Bergman for the rest of 2014.

After all, neither prospect was particularly heralded by fans or the organization before the season, but both have performed reasonably well in the limited time that they’ve had at the major league level, so what are we to believe?

However, much as in life, in writing things can change quickly. In this case, what started out as a waste of my Sunday afternoon turned into an evening of elation as the Rockies capped a weekend sweep of the San Francisco Giants with their third come-from-behind victory in as many days. The final hurdle was cleared by Justin Morneau, who entered the game as a pinch hitter and smacked a two-run double that proved to be the deciding hit of the game, prompting me first to celebrate, but then to utter the following query: When is Justin Morneau finally going to turn into a pumpkin?

Why I would say such a thing aloud when there was no one present in the room other than my dog is unimportant. What is important is that I found this query to be a higher priority than the Bergman/Matzek exploration. After all, if I wait a week or two Morneau may have already turned into a pumpkin, if in fact he is going to at all.

You see, that’s the interesting thing about him: entering 2014, anyone who follows the sport of baseball closely enough probably had an idea in their head of what he could bring to the table at this stage of Morneau's career. You know, .260 average, probably 15-20 home runs, .750-ish OPS. Sound about right? Fangraphs.com projected Morneau at .258/.330/.428 with a .330 wOBA and 108 wRC+ before the season, so yeah, right in that ballpark.

Instead, two and a half months into the season the 33-year-old first baseman is sporting a .301/.333/.512 line that is reminiscent of his glory days in Minnesota, where he was a perennial All-Star and even won an MVP award. You know, before all of the concussions that reduced him to a shell of the ballplayer he was from 2006 to 2010.

But all of this you know, or at least have been somewhat aware of already. That takes us back to the original question: When is Morneau going to turn into a pumpkin? The short answer is that I’m not sure that he’s going to.

Let me start by saying that when I’ve looked at other evaluations of Morneau in the past, most people have made a big deal over his defense (which has been mediocre outside of two solid seasons) and base running (which has been just plain bad throughout most of his career). It may be a personal flaw, but I don’t particularly care about either of those things.

For starters, first base is where most teams have their least athletic and overall worst defender anyway. If Morneau’s defense there is marginal, at least the realm of acceptability is much lower at first than it is in say, center field.

As for base running, Morneau is replacing maybe one of the all-time worst base runners in MLB history. Todd Helton’s -31.6 BsR for his career is just awful, so once again Morneau doesn’t have to achieve much in this realm to be an upgrade. While I understand the notion that it’s desirable to have a first baseman (or any regular position player) who's more proficient in these areas, to be very frank, Morneau isn’t getting paid for either of those things. Neither is any other first baseman in baseball that’s worth rostering. They’re all getting paid for their bats.

With that in mind, what I’m interested in is whether there are still any lasting effects of the concussions that have limited Morneau’s capabilities the past few seasons, and furthermore, if the effects are gone, how sustainable is Morneau’s current pace?

One of the nice predictive tools that virtually everyone is familiar with is BABIP. Let’s take a look at Morneau’s over the course of his career:

Year PA BABIP AVG
2003 115 .278 .226
2004 312 .273 .271
2005 543 .251 .239
2006 661 .328 .321
2007 668 .270 .271
2008 712 .312 .300
2009 590 .273 .274
2010 348 .385 .345
2011 288 .257 .227
2012 570 .294 .267
2013 635 .290 .259
2014 264 .303 .301

I pull this up to illustrate one thing: The years that we’d all consider to be his prime (2004 to 2010, essentially), Morneau only had one season in which there was more than a 12-point difference between his average and his BABIP, and none in which he accumulated at least 350 plate appearances. This is to say that just because Morneau’s BABIP currently sits at .303 and his average sits at .301 (career rates of .293 and .278, respectively) does not necessarily mean that we should expect a regression.

With that average (to go along with an .846 OPS that’s far more in line with his prime years than it is with the past few seasons), Morneau finds himself a top 30 player in baseball in terms of wRAA (10.8) and wOBA (.366), and a top 60 player in terms of wRC+ (118).

Before we explore the stat that I’m most interested in, let’s get a few splits out of the way. Morneau’s OPS at home is .876 at home, versus .816 on the road, a difference of .060. The average league difference between home and road OPS numbers is .028, but considering the Rockies play in one of the top hitter’s parks in the game while most of their division rivals play in some of the best pitcher’s parks in the game, I’m going to go ahead and make a ruling that this really isn’t very extreme.

Then there’s the matter of left/right splits. Morneau as a left-handed bat is hitting .322 with a .920 OPS against right-handed pitching, versus .253 with a .675 OPS against lefties. Now that looks pretty damning. However, a closer look at Morneau indicates that he has always had pretty extreme splits on this stat, outside of three seasons (2006, 2009, 2010) in which he was able to neutralize his platoon splits.

While it may not be ideal, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult for the Rockies to limit Morneau’s exposure to top-level left-handed pitching over the course of the season by using their other first base options. It should be noted that this was not a luxury that the Minnesota Twins had during the first baseman’s MVP-caliber seasons, so in that way Colorado should be able to positively skew Morneau’s impact without taking away too many plate appearances.

So far, I see nothing here that says Morneau couldn’t finish out the season in the same way he’s started it. For what that might mean in terms of results, I think that his 2008 season s probably a decent reference point (.300/.374/.499, 23 HR). But now we circle back to the other half of this fact-finding mission: Are the concussion symptoms gone for good?

For reasons that I feel are fairly self-explanatory (or if you don’t think they are, reasons sufficient to myself), I believe the best answers lie in Morneau’s plate discipline. Regard:

Morneau_plate_discipline_medium

Embiggenable, naturally.

Obviously, what we see here is that Morneau is swinging at more pitches than ever before. What could be considered surprising is that he is making contact with more of those pitches than he has since the aforementioned 2008 season, the high water mark of his career as far as contact rate goes. Two numbers in particular stand out to me. The first is a 63.6 percent first pitch strike rate, which is not only the highest of Morneau’s career, but also well above the major league average of 60.4 percent. It indicates that pitchers have started throwing Morneau more strikes as his skills have declined, but this year he has been able to punish that approach more readily than the last few seasons.

The second stat that stands out is Morneau’s swinging strike percentage of 9.0 percent, compared to a career rate of 9.6 and a major league average of 9.2 in 2014. While it’s not a major difference, the fact that his swinging strike rate has improved while swinging at a higher rate of pitches than ever before is impressive.

I could speculate that the increased swinging and contact rates suggest that Morneau is seeing the ball better out of the pitcher’s hand, or picking up the spin of the ball better, or simply that his hand-eye coordination is improved over the previous few seasons. It’s probably some combination of all of the above, and you know what? All of those things would be affected by the post-concussion symptoms that Morneau has fought since 2010.

I still expect Morneau’s average to decline some over the rest of the season, but it’s no longer the precipitous drop I once expected it to be. Additionally, 25 home runs and an .850 OPS that I would have scoffed at before the season no longer seem out of reach for Morneau. Not bad for a player projected to have a 0.9 WAR in 518 plate appearances in 2014. In fact, he’s already hit that benchmark.

While Morneau is certainly not a long-term solution at first base and there’s a definitive argument to be made that the money spent on him would have been better spent elsewhere (pitching ... always pitching), I no longer view his signing as a hindrance. Morneau is probably not going to perform at an MVP level ever again, but he has a chance to be one of the more productive players for his age in the league.

The Rockies can tell you they expected this from the big Canadian all along, but don’t let them fool you. Morneau has been a pleasant surprise for the Rockies this season, and I hope he can keep it up through the end.

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