This article was originally posted at WahooBlues.com.
Jose Bautista took the baseball world by storm in 2010 when, after six MLB seasons of doing nothing in particular, he emerged as a candidate for AL MVP. Compare his 54 homers, 124 RBI, and .995 OPS in 161 games last year to the 59 homers, 211 RBI, and .729 OPS he posted in nearly 600 games from 2004-09. Using WAR/PA, Bautista was more than 11 times better in 2010 than he’d been for the rest of his career.
Interestingly, Bautista’s breakout came just a year after Ben Zobrist came out of nowhere to become the second-most valuable player in baseball. After hitting .222/.279/.370 with just 15 homers, 57 RBI and -0.5 WAR in roughly a full season’s worth of games from 2006-08, Zobrist went bananas in 2009, hitting .297/.405/.543 with 27 taters, 91 knocked in, and 8.4 WAR.
Besides the fact that no one expected monster breakouts from either of them, 2009 Zobrist and 2010 Bautista had some interesting things in common. Both had extensive experience in the big leagues but neither had done anything particularly impressive. Both entered their seasons with at some questions about what their roles would be. And both had enjoyed out-of-nowhere power surges during their respective previous Septembers.
From the time Zobrist reached the major leagues through Aug. 31, 2008, his career HR/FB rate was 7.8 percent. In 68 trips to the plate in September, his HR/FB rate ballooned to 33.3 percent. Bautista’s surge was less dramatic but still eye-popping: the man who had a 9.2 HR/FB rate on Sept. 1, 2009 nearly tripled his career mark (25.6 percent) for the rest of the season.
The idea that, every year, one theretofore scrub who happened to get hot at the end of the previous season would emerge as one of the best players in the game is absolutely ridiculous — two examples out of the hundreds of players in the major leagues does not a pattern make. I’d like the record to show that I do not endorse this as a serious method of player projection.
But scientific merit be damned. Let’s assume that this is a legitimate theory of player development. Who will be the next Zobrist or Bautista?
The search for the 2011 surger must begin with the leaders in HR/FB rate from Sept. 1, 2010 on. Ignoring established power hitters like Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez, some surprising names appear on the Top 10. Mike Stanton ranks higher than one might expect, and Kelly Johnson and Drew Stubbs aren’t exactly elite sluggers. But Stanton is a highly touted prospect with less than a full season under his belt, and Johnson and Stubbs are already known to be very good players, so they won’t do.
Only one name near the top really fits the mold: Mike Morse. Unless you’re a Nationals fan or a Mariners fan with a really good memory, Morse’s name may sound completely foreign to you. That’s the first point in his favor.
Morse has appeared in 237 games across six seasons with Washington and Seattle. He’s a solid hitter (.291/.353/.456 career slashline). Originally a shortstop, his abysmal fielding has forced him to make a number of position changes. He spent 72 games in right field for the Nats, where he posted a -16.7 UZR/150. His poor defense and the move to more offense-heavy positions (he also played 19 games at first last year) negate much of the good he does with his bat, and as a result owns a “meh” 1.7 career WAR/150 games.
So where will he play this year? Many expected Morse to get a full-time job for the upcoming season at either right field or first base, but the signings of Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche put an end to that. As it stands now, he’ll probably split time with Roger Bernadina in left field, but Justin Maxwell could be breathing down his neck, and Bryce Harper could conceivably reach the majors this season.
Then, of course, there’s the warning-sign power surge. On Sept. 1, his career HR/FB rate was 11.4 percent; his 23.8-percent mark from then on more than doubled that. No, his late-season HR/FB rate wasn’t as high as Bautista’s or Zobrist’s, but Bautista’s was closer to Morse’s than it was to Zobrist’s. Consider also that Morse didn’t hit his first September homer until the 19th. Of the 12 fly balls he hit during the last two weeks of the season, five left the yard. That’s 41.7 percent. For some comparison, that’s more than double Josh Hamilton‘s 2010 HR/FB rate (20.6 percent).
Extensive big-league experience with unimpressive results? Check. Uncertainty about where he’ll play this year? Check. Uncharacteristic power at the end of last season? You betcha.
Again, this whole idea is preposterous. The notion that something like inconsistent playing time has a strong correlation with breakout potential is absurd. Obviously these characteristics don’t tell the whole story of what happened to Bautista and Zobrist. But hey, the shoe fits.