Melvin Mora has reportedly announced his retirement. I will admit that I was a bit surprised to find out that Mora is going to turn 40 in February. I knew he was a “late bloomer,” but I had not processed just how late. Upon his retirement, it is worth reflecting Mora’s curious development as well as taking a look at one of his most exciting in-game moments.
Mora actually originally signed with the Astros in 1991 (!) when he was 19 year old amateur free agent, but he never showed much over the next six seasons in the minors, despite making it all the way to AAA. Already in the minors, he was splitting his time between second, third, shortstop, and the outfield, which says something about how he was viewed as a prospect. Indeed, the minor-league pages at Baseball-Reference also record him pitching in part of an inning in 1997. This is hardly the story of someone viewed as a future major league star, and probably not even a future major-leaguer. After the 1997 season, he was granted free agency, and signed with the Mets in mid-1998. Mora then bounced around various levels of the Mets’ system (getting 39 forgettable major-league plate appearances in 1999). He actually hit decently at AAA in 1999 and 2000, but at that point he was 27 and 28 and had made his first AAA appearance at 23, so that was hardly impressive. His plate discipline seemed pretty good, but that was about it. He looked like a career minor-leaguer.
Despite this less-than-intriguing resume, circumstances led to Mora getting almost 250 plate appearances for the Mets in 2000, playing all over the infield and outfield (mostly shortstop), and actually holding his own (if hardly dominating) with that bat (.260/.317/.423, 85 wRC+). Still, give his age and history, one could hardly blame the Mets when Mora was a thrown in as one of four players traded for the Orioles’ Mike Bordick in the middle of the 2000 season. Despite having played only 67 games over six seasons at the position in the minors, the Orioles used him primarily as a shortstop, and he hit decently for the position: .291/.359/.397 (91 wRC+). His overall 2000 performance could easily have been a fluke given his past, but given his apparent ability to play multiple defensive positions (even shortstop if necessary) and acceptable bat, it made sense for the Orioles to see what he had.
Ah, the 2001 Orioles outfield: Delino DeShields in left, the Ghost of Brady Anderson in left, and 28-year old mystery man Melvin Mora in center. Mora also got time at shortstop, so despite a none-too-exciting 89 wRC+ over 503 plate appearances, he managed 1.8 WAR. An average walk rate despite little power (.112 ISO) was good enough for a guy to be a stopgap starter or utility man. In 2002, the 30 year-old Mora was a utility man, and the title was apt, as he played second, shortstop, and all three outfield positions over 652 plate appearances. A 101 wRC+ is, well, average, but the .233/.338/.404 line contains hints of something more going on: this was not a utility man with a high BABIP, but an increasing walk rate, decreasing strikeout rate, and more power (.171 ISO). Maybe there was something there, indeed, an increasingly popular ESPN internet personality found him intriguing enough to write up a little something about Mora’s baseball card after the 2002 season.
Finally, we come to the 2003 season. The Orioles actually seemed like they had some potential on offense back then, at least to my less sophisticated baseball mind (not that it is terribly sophisticated now). Brian Roberts and Jerry Hairston were battling it out for infield playing time, and Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, and Jay Gibbons were a promising young outfield. Um, yeah, sure they were. Maybe they would even give Jack Cust a chance to play DH! Nah, that guy will never hit, old skills and all. But the real surprise of the 71-win 2003 Orioles was Melvin Mora, who at age 31 played all over the field yet again (mostly left field this time), and managed 4.9 WAR in only 96 games. Say what you want about his fielding, it was his hitting that was impressive: a .402 wOBA (.317/.418/.503, 161 wRC+). While his walk rate and power and increased a bit over the previous season, what had really happened was that his BABIP had jumped about 100 points over the previous season, but it was a shocking performance nonetheless. Still, he could be expected to regress, right, given the BABIP, the relatively small sample given his injury-shortened season, his age, and his past?
One would be justified in expecting that, of course. That is not quite what happened, though. The Orioles avoided arbitration with Mora prior to the 2004 season and signed him to a reasonable three-year, $10.5 million contract. While the Orioles brought in big-time free agents like Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez for their thrilling run to 78 wins in 2004, Mora’s bat stole the show. Mora moved to third base full-time, accumulating 6.2 WAR, but and hitting a stunning .340/.419/.562 for what would be a career-high .420 wOBA (159 wRC+) at 32. His walk rate remained about the same, but his strikeouts went down, his power spiked considerably to a .222 ISO, and he managed to up his BABIP to .371. It was a legitimate superstar-level performance. The next season Mora saw considerable regression, which was to be expected, even after two years of high BABIP performances. His 2005 average on balls in play dropped back to a more reasonable .309, but for the first time in a few seasons his walk rate fell below league average. His power also regressed, although it remained good (.191 ISO). A 4.1 season was nothing to sneeze at given Mora’s contract.
Mora still had something left, but it was the beginning of the end. His plate discipline was not bad, it just never again was quite as good as it once was, and neither was his power. His did hit well enough for a third baseman for a few seasons so that he was useful, even if the Orioles giving him a three-year contract worth $27 million for his age-35-to-37 seasons was ill-advised. Mora finished his career with unremarkable utility stints with the 2010 Rockies and 2011 Diamondbacks, but his ascension from minor-league afterthought to bench player to super-utility man to a two- or three-year run of offensive greatness followed by a non-horrible denouement is still hard to believe. Perhaps it is less hard to believe given Jose Bautista‘s recent rise to greater heights, but it is stunning nonetheless for a guy who, prior to 2003, was probably more famous for being the father of quintuplets.
I suppose I could close with some “it just goes to show that you never know” sort of reflections about aging curves or randomness or something like that, but to mention those things is probably enough. The Orioles are in a sad state at the moment, so perhaps it would be a better holiday gift to their fans to recall a memorable in-game moment from Melvin Mora’s tenure there, the moment in which he had the highest in-game impact for the team as measured by Win Probability Added.
Mora’s 2006 season ended up being disappointing, but it started out on a high note. On April 13, the Orioles had every reason to think they were going to have an easy time of it. Sure, they were on the road, but it was against the pathetic Tampa Bay Devil Rays (like that team is ever going to win anything). While the Rays were trotting out Doug Waechter, the Orioles brought Bruce Chen to the mound, who was just coming off of a sub-4.00 ERA season. Mora did his part at the beginning, doubling in David Newhan (who looked like a potential Mora 2.0 at one point, remember that?) in the first to put the Orioles up 1-0. However, future Oriole Legend Ty Wigginton tied things up with a solo homer off of Sweet Chen Music in the bottom of the second, and the Devil Rays made their infernal cheating all the more obvious when Travis Lee and Tomas Perez replicated Wigginton’s feat in fourth and fifth to put Satan’s Fish up 3-1. Why Bud Selig did not call the game and force the Devil Rays to forfeit for their blatant defiance of the rules when Jonny Gomes hit the fourth solo homer off of Chen I will never know (COME ON, CHEN!) , but it put the Rays up 4-1. Chen made it through seven, then left the game (undoubtedly in disgust). The Orioles began their comeback in the eighth, getting to 3-4, but the Rays managed another run in the eighth when Gomes drove in Jorge Cantu (a real game of legends, this one). Down 3-5 in the top of the ninth, the Rays managed to get runners on first and third, and Brian Roberts hit a sacrifice fly to score Luis Matos. After David Newhan fly out, the Orioles were down to their final out. With a very young rookie by the name of Nick Markakis on first, Melvin Mora came to the plate and pounded his third hit of the game over the left field fence to put the Orioles up for good, and for a career-best play of .710 WPA.
When we were kings…