Morse Power and the Prince

A few years ago, Michael Morse looked like another marginal major-league guy who once had a brief hot streak. After reportedly having the last two seasons of his arbitration eligibility bought out by the Washington Nationals this weekend, Morse is now a millionaire many times over. (The reported amount is $10.5 million.) It has been a long path to relevance for the 29-year-old. Of more relevance right now is his current true-talent level — and how he fits in with the Nationals’ plans, considering the on-and-off Prince Fielder talk.

As a defensively questionable shortstop in the Mariners’ organization, Morse showed signs of offensive promise during 258 major-league plate appearances in 2005. But questions about his defense — and a suspension for a positive PED test — put him on the back-burner, despite hitting well in a very small 2006 sample.

In 2009, Morse was traded to Washington for Ryan Langerhans. At the time, the deal appeared to be a clear win for Seattle. How things change. It’d be glib to simply dismiss how things  turned out as 20/20 hindsight. After all, even if the Nationals made the trade primarily as a favor to Langerhans, the team obviously saw something in Morse. The deal, obviously, has  paid off for Washington.

Morse got an extended opportunity with the Nationals in 2010, and he hit for surprising power. Given Morse’s history, though, that might understandably have been viewed as a small-sample blip. Given that his 2010 wOBA was also bolstered by a high BABIP, the earlier impression tended to stand out. But then he did it again in 2011. And he hit for even more power. His BABIP was still high, so there’s still room for regression, but perhaps not as much as you’d think.

The big concern with Morse’s hitting is that — to a certain extent — he has to rely on balls in play to propel his on-base percentage. Morse has never had much plate discipline — he sports a below-average walk rate. And with an above-average strikeout rate, it’s not as if he makes up for his poor plate discipline with plenty of contact. Few walks and low contact is a bad combination for most hitters, but Morse makes up for it with his biggest skill: power.

In less that a full season of playing time in 2011, Morse hit 31 home runs. While Hit Tracker  indicates that a large number of those dingers squeaked over the fence, a third of those home runs were classified   as “No Doubts.” The average distance and bat speed of Morse’s 2011 home runs in were well above league average. Morse’s plate discipline is far from ideal, and at his age — he’ll be 30 in March — it’s unlikely that his skill will change much. But excellent power can make up for lots of problems. Morse’s 2012 Oliver projection is .292/.349/.505 — with a .369 wOBA. Over roughly a full season, that is about 25 runs above average, and that number will play anywhere.

But where will he play? The former shortstop is — to say the least — not a middle infielder any more. He spent 2011 in left field and, after Adam LaRoche‘s injury, landed at first base. UZR wasn’t overly impressed with his fielding, but even the most fervent defender of advanced fielding metrics would strongly warn against taking too much from a partial-season’s sample. Even if Morse is a true-talent -10 fielder in left — or -5 at first base — his projected bat would still make him roughly a 2.5 win player in about 150 games. That’s above average. So, even if you think his defense is really poor, Morse still projects a tick above average, overall.

Obviously, on the free agent market, a two-year, $10.5 million deal for a player like that is a steal. But Morse still had two arbitration seasons left. Matt Swartz’s arbitration projections had Morse getting around $4 million, a bit lower than the midpoint between his and the team’s proposal. One would expect that — with even a decent year — the figure would go up to at least $6 million after 2011. The Oliver projection has Morse putting up enough power numbers that he’d probably get more than $7 million in arbitration after this coming season. This is not an exact science, but I’d say the deal is fair, overall: Morse gets some security; the team avoids the potential for a bigger payday. And both can happily avoid the unhappiness of an arbitration hearing.

Some might assume that the deal is the end of the Nationals’ pursuit of Prince Fielder. But that’s not necessarily the case. Morse was going to be a National in 2012, regardless. And remember that the Nationals started Morse in left field last season, so why wouldn’t they do the same this year? If there’s an obstacle to Fielder signing with the Nats — and it is hard to see how Adam “Solid B Average” LaRoche really poses an obstacle — it’s not Morse’s new contract.

That’s not to say that a defense with Morse in left, Jayson Werth in center and Prince Fielder at first might not have a surplus entertainment value. Even so, whatever happens in the field — and whoever else is hitting in the lineup — Morse should provide at least a partial homer fix for Nationals fans. That is, pending Bryce Harper’s arrival.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

27 Responses to “Morse Power and the Prince”

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  1. ben says:

    Dear god man, get an editor.

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  2. word nerd says:

    The article could use a bit of revision, but it’s also got some interesting and thoughtful analysis, which I got for free; thanks for the piece, Matt!

    I don’t have any use for LaRoche but Morse is indeed fun. He looks slated for a good share of AB’s over the next few years; maybe this gambit will drop Prince’s price a bit further.

    The Prince dilemma keeps getting more and more confounding. As an O’s fan I’d like to see him fall all the way to us, but on the other hand that’s pretty much a waste, since we aren’t going anywhere any time soon. At least the whole issue has given me something to keep looking at through the off season. Just a few more weeks to pitchers and catchers!

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    • ben says:

      This isn’t me trying to be mean, but I honestly don’t see the thoughtful analysis in this piece. And I don’t really think the fact that I read it for free should exempt it from criticism.

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  3. Hmm says:

    Nice the Nats would be flat evil with Prince at 1B if Harper and Rendon are both up by mid 2013 that could be
    C Ramos
    1B Prince
    2B Rendon
    3B Zimmerman
    SS Espinosa
    RF Harper
    CF Werth
    LF Morse

    although they are just as nasty if they pass on Prince, sign Upton/Victorino and/or Aybar/Drew to play CF and SS leaving either Zimmerman or Rendon as trade bait

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      What’s with all the Zimmerman trade talk? He’s going into his age 27 season, he’s a pretty sure thing to be very good for at least the next 2-3 years, which is when the Nats think they can win.

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      • Awesome says:

        Namely that the haul he would get would be substantial, assuming Werth bounces back that leaves Rendon, Harper, Ramos, Espinosa projected as above average hitters by 2014 if that is true than RZa could be used to clean out someone’s farm system not anytime soon, but maybe in his final year of his contract.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        Why get a haul for him? You have a ton of young talent, and talent in their prime. Why prolong it? Prospects are always a gamble, when I see a top 25 prospect with a B+ to A sickels grade, I typically take that as “likely solid major leaguer”, what are the chances you find another 3B as good as Zimmerman? Assuming Werth bounces back at his age 33 is a really bad idea. He wasn’t really all that spectacular to beging with. Morse isn’t all that likely to continue to be really good, dude is already 30. Zimmerman is going into his age 27 season, could still get better, and likely has more good years left, and not only more good years, but better years that both Werth and Morse.

        Plus Zimmerman had a down year, the haul for him wouldn’t be that amazing right now. I say at least let Zimmerman play this year. He should bounce back. I think you need a core of 2-3 pitchers and 3-4 hitters. They have close to both right now and they’re all either in their prime or close to it. They have a chance at something special that I wouldn’t gamble with.

        Unless you’re saying that because Werth is damn near a guarantee to not be any good (compared to the contract) and Morse likely isn’t going to sustain his success and thus, you need top cheap talent then I really just don’t get it. Prospect projection is one thing, but Zimmerman is a proven talent. If they sign Fielder, a core offense of Zimmerman, Harper, Fielder, and a pitching core of Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez is pretty good. Especially WITH all the young players they have coming up and their young pen.

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    • Franklin Stubbs says:

      That may be the worst defensive team ever. This is real baseball not fantasy.

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  4. CircleChange11 says:

    There are three “relevanci” (or is it “relevances”?), in the first paragraph.

    Does anyone have any additional information on what caused the turnaround? Did he work with a private coach? Power coach?

    It has to be pretty rare to just “turn on the power” at age 28-29 at his level.

    Without knowing the reason for his turnaround, it’s difficult to have an idea whether it will continue.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      [1] How many players doubled their ISO at age 27?

      [2] What do their career paths look like?

      I can’t stop my mind from thinking Morse is a little too much Ankiel. But, Morse’s BABIP is about 35-40 pts higher. That’s significant.

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    • JCA says:

      In terms of power, he started hitting more flies.

      2005 – <30%
      2009 – < 28%
      2010 – ~38%
      2011 – 36.5%

      LD % went up, too, since 2009 (2005 – 25% – looks flukey)

      2009 – 11%
      2010 – 16%
      2100 – 19%

      I don't know if it is Eckstein who got him to hit more balls in the air, but it looks like he's doing that.

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  5. Matt K says:

    the real question, when does Morse get drafted in a 5×5 (ops) 12 team league ?

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  6. Aggie E says:

    Great article Matt…

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  7. West says:

    100 game suspension is a risk once HGH testing kicks in.

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    • joser says:

      His previous PED suspension came in the minors (while recovering from an injury, natch, though it was a legit injury at least). So I’m not sure he’s automatically at risk for more than a 50 game, is he?

      I honestly can’t be bothered keeping track of the policy and relationship to past bad acts under the previous CBA and whatever. It’s January. I just want to watch baseball.

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  8. Robbie G. says:

    Seems pretty unusual for a guy who was playing shortstop 5-6 years ago at the minor league level is now a below average LF.

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  9. bstar says:

    I feel better about Morse’s chances to repeat the last two years’ offensive success than I do about Jayson Werth putting up similar numbers.

    There are a few guys in the National League with high K% and high ISO’s who have proven that a high BABIP is sustainable. Ryan Howard, Matt Holliday, Matt Kemp, and Carlos Gonzalez all have career BABIP’s over .320. For a similar sample size to Morse’s, Mike Stanton has posted a .320 BABIP over his first two years. So I agree with the author that Morse’s BABIP next year may not regress as much as one might think, which makes the possibility of him reproducing those good numbers look more likely.

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  10. George W Lucas says:

    Morse A Dud?

    Matt Kemp has similar BB & K rates. In fact, I find him to be a similar player to Morse, except with added speed. Kemp’s 2010 season proves that a player with such BB & K rates, which would usually be unfavourable for a hitter, must be saved by a high BABIP. Without this inflated BABIP, the batter is susceptible to a long slump given their inability to draw walks.

    Of Kemp’s time in the majors, 2010 was the first year Kemp’s BABIP fell below .330. His BABIP fell so far that it fell to the league average. Looking back at that season, aside from his AVG, his line is nothing a decent player would frown upon. He jacked 28 HRs and batted in 89 RBIs, coupled with 19 SBs and 82 runs scored. His ISO even improved, to a career best at the time time, .201. This ability to hit for power saved Kemp’s season, if it can be viewed that way.

    Morse has this same ability, with ISOs regularly above .220 the past three seasons. As with the case above, especially being older than Kemp, Morse is susceptible to a long slump given his high BABIP and poor BB and K rates. However, with his power, which is better than Kemp’s, he can still be quite serviceable. Add in an ever improving Nats lineup, which should help carry Morse through any slumps he may encounter, and Morse could have another big season.

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