Once upon a time, Justin Morneau was a very solid player. He was never the player his most-valuable-player status would have seemed to convey, though he was still solid. But that time was more than two seasons ago, and as he enters a contract year in what will be age-32 season, it’s fair to wonder if this is Morneau’s last stand.
To be sure, Morneau is no scrub. Since the Integration Era began in 1947, he is one of 78 first basemen who has accumulated at least 20 WAR through age 31. He’s a plodder on the bases, but his bat and glove have both been well above league average throughout his career. He’s a four-time All-Star, won the aforementioned MVP Award in ’06, and finished second for the award in ’08 as well. That’s a pretty impressive resume.
From 2006-2010, he was one of the 25 best position players in the game, and was seventh-best among first basemen. Not a Hall of Fame track by any stretch, but a very good player who could be the second or third-best player on a championship club. And with Joe Mauer around to be the leader, Morneau had the luxury of being exactly that player. But then, the injuries came, to his knee, wrist and most distressing, to his brain, in the form of multiple concussions. Through his abbreviated 2010 campaign, Morneau was a .286/.358/.511 hitter. Since, he has hit a paltry .254/.317/.403. For the past two seasons, his 95 wRC+ was worse than that of several players who have been dealt/discarded in the past year, including Brett Wallace, Gaby Sanchez and Mike Carp.
Now, obviously Morneau’s contract made it harder to discard him. But that won’t be the case for much longer. This season is the last on the six-year contract extension that he signed back in 2008, and there is no club option attached to the deal either. And with Chris Parmelee, Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham all under contract for 2014, Minnesota will certainly have no shortage of first-base candidates. Emotions seem to run deep in the Twins’ organization, and there may be a movement to keep Morneau given what he has meant to the organization, but he is going to have to do his part to make himself worth their while. And a first baseman who slugs in the low-.400’s and has a declining walk rate isn’t exactly a rare commodity.
And it’s not like Morneau would be in rarified company — plenty of first basemen have disappeared when they reached his age. As I mentioned earlier, 78 first basemen — including Morneau — have tallied 20+ WAR through the age of 31. Nine of those players are current — Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Morneau, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto. We’ll leave them out of the sample, for the moment. Of the 69 players remaining, 26 of them — or 38 percent — were not able to accumulate another 5 WAR as first basemen. Recent players that fit this group include Frank Thomas, Richie Sexson, Mike Sweeney, Mo Vaughn, Wally Joyner and Cecil Fielder. Now, these players were not necessarily useless. Some of them, like Thomas for instance, went on to have productive finishing kicks as designated hitters. But since much of Morneau’s value comes from his glove, it would not seem that DH is a likely career path, so we’re only looking at first-base value here.
We’re down to 43 players in our sample now. Of the 43, another 17 players didn’t pile up 10 WAR for the remainder of their careers after their age-31 season. So, in other words, only 26 of the players here were able to contribute more than 10 WAR at first base after they had reached the point in their careers at which Morneau currently finds himself.
This data isn’t necessarily a death knell for Morneau. Far from it. Plenty of first basemen went on to be productive after their primes ended. Still, Morneau needs to show some sort of rejuvenation this season, or face becoming rapidly irrelevant. Taking a look at his projections doesn’t offer much encouragement. Of the five projections housed here at FanGraphs, none has Morneau reaching 600 plate appearances or more than 2.1 WAR. Bill James, the Fans and Steamer see him regaining a little bit of his offensive mojo, but Oliver and ZiPS don’t see him improving on 2012.
Certainly, the key for Morneau is going to be his plate discipline. Last season, he started swinging at a lot more pitches. Only 15 qualified hitters swung at more pitches out of the strike zone than did Morneau, but while he was swinging at more pitches, his contact percentage didn’t increase accordingly. As such, his swinging-strike percentage was essentially the highest of his career (it was higher in his 2003 cup of coffee, but that really doesn’t count). As a result, he wasn’t able to get as much loft on the ball — his fly-ball percentage was also the lowest mark since his ’03 cup of coffee.
Less power and less patience is not generally a desirable trend. But 2013 will represent a great — and perhaps the last — chance for Morneau to show that he can contribute in a meaningful way. He is healthy for the first time in what seems like forever. He played in three straight games at first base earlier this week, something that didn’t happen until late March last year, as he prepares to play first base for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. With improved health, particularly in his wrist, perhaps he will get back to the business of making hard contact. If he can’t though, 2013 may end up being Morneau’s last stand.
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