White Sox Need Morel at 3B

September is the perfect time to begin to make plans for the next season, to test prospects and start the process of shoring up holes. Previously, I have written up the Major League debuts of three pitchers: Mike Minor, Kyle Drabek and Brandon Beachy. But the next logical step is to tackle hitters, and those September call-ups are just now getting to the level of proper evaluation. The White Sox have recently been testing Brent Morel at third base, giving him the last seven starts at that position. He’s been a bit over his head, hitting .188/.235/.438, but has mixed in enough to sustain the optimism with two home runs and sure-handed defense. I went through every PA that Morel has had in his 11 games (34 in all), to see if it might help inform the statistics when we think about his future.

Morel hasn’t drawn the easiest assignments in his seven games as starter, going against Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson. For what it’s worth, he homered off Scherzer, a flyball to center field that had really good backspin. What’s weird is that you look at that list and it seems to explain his SwStr%, which is above the league average (8.5%) at 12.2%. In total, Morel has swung and missed on 17 pitches this month. Six of those have been fastballs. Yet not a single of those fastballs was from one of the great pitchers above. Four of the seven breaking balls were, but the fastballs came from the likes of Craig Breslow and Boof Bonser.

Morel clearly doesn’t have a problem with velocity. In fact, he doesn’t really have a problem with fastballs at all. Both his home runs were off fastballs, and it’s certainly the pitch he tries to isolate within an at-bat. If you want to know the book on Brent Morel, look no further than Justin Verlander‘s approach against him on September 18. Morel had four plate appearances against the Tigers ace, spanning 21 pitches: 8 curveballs, 5 sliders, 5 fastballs, and 3 change-ups. Yes, the pitcher that threw fastballs 58.5% of the time this year, averaging in at 95.4 mph, went to the heater just 23.8% of the time against the White Sox rookie.

Like many young hitters, the key is breaking stuff low and away. If you look at his swings at TexasLeaguers.com, you’ll see four pitches he offered at above the zone, two inside, and 11 pitches low (most low and away). He has no discipline in that part of the zone. On pitches high in the zone, another weakness we often see in young hitters, it’s just the opposite. I could give you numerous examples in the last two weeks of catchers calling for the high fastball with two strikes, with Morel watching the pitch go by. Or, even more often, if the pitch isn’t too far out of the zone, he’ll hit it foul. He does that often, as 21 of the 139 pitches he’s been thrown (15.1%) have been hit out of play.

The youngster earns a plus grade for his two-strike approach, which, with improved performance on the low-and-away slider, should help sustain those better-than-average strikeout numbers we’ve seen in the minor leagues. But I think it will take a couple years to lay off that pitch, so it’s going to be a slow crawl back to 15%. I plug his numbers into this xBABIP calculator, and it says he should be at .312, and yet now he’s at .190. There’s just been some bad luck on batted balls; I have at least three in my notes that were hard-hit balls ending up in a glove, including a particularly hard hit would-be double that landed just foul. That stuff will even out next year, I think.

The real question, the big question, is about his ultimate power. After 16 home runs in High-A in 2009, Morel had just 10 in the minors this year, before recently adding two more in the Major Leagues. I have not seen the kid take batting practice yet, which I believe is necessary in evaluating power, but I do think this is someone that will hit 20 home runs in the Major Leagues. Not many more, but he’s not Dustin Ackley, with an approach that runs counter to hitting for power. Morel’s goal, at every at-bat, is to take a middle-in fastball to left-center field. 

After watching all 34 plate appearances, my grade on Morel would actually be higher than it was entering this article concept. He has one glaring weakness, but it’s one that should improve out of habit and in time. He generally shows signs of good contact skills, an approach conducive to average power for the position, and I didn’t think it necessary today to re-tread the established fact that he’s good defensively. I certainly think he could be worth at least 2-2.5 WAR next year, which is a lot more than you can say of Mark Teahen and Omar Vizquel in 2010.

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