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Kendry Morales’ Mild Start

Heading into 2010, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were a prime pick to come back to the pack in baseball’s short stack division. CHONE forecasted an 81-81 record, while PECOTA called for 74 victories and 88 defeats. So far, the Halos have limped to an 18-23 start, with a -36 run differential. Per Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds, Mike Scioscia‘s team has a nine percent chance of returning to the postseason.

During a 97-win 2009 season, L.A. received unexpectedly strong offensive performances from several hitters. The club raked to the tune of +91.7 park-adjusted Batting Runs, trailing only AL east juggernauts Boston and New York among all major league clubs. This year? The Angels have tallied -14 Batting Runs (10th in the AL).

While he hasn’t scuffled to the same extent as Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick or Juan Rivera among returning starters (to say nothing of Brandon Wood‘s disastrous beginning as an everyday player), first baseman Kendry Morales isn’t mashing like he did in ’09 either.

The switch-hitting Cuban didn’t make a great impression in three major league cups of coffee from 2006-2008 (a combined .303 wOBA in 407 plate appearances). He hit well at Triple-A over that time frame (.335/.374/.518), but that line lost some of its appeal given the cozy environs of Salt Lake:

Morales’ Major League Equivalent Lines, 2006-2008 (from Minor League Splits)

2006: .261/.289/.410
2007: .278/.318/.383
2008: .276/.303/.427

Prior to 2009, CHONE projected Morales for a .327 wOBA. ZiPS was similarly unimpressed, forecasting a .325 wOBA. Not exactly stellar numbers for a player given the gargantuan task of replacing another switch-hitter who left L.A. to break the bank with the Bronx Bombers.

Instead, Morales crushed pitchers for a .306/.355/.569 triple-slash and a .382 wOBA. Though he was a free swinger (32.3 outside swing percentage, 7.4 BB%), Morales made up for it by popping 34 home runs and posting a .263 Isolated Power.

Both CHONE and ZiPS figured that Morales would regress in 2010, calling for identical .353 wOBA forecasts. However, the 26-year-old has fallen below those expectations, as his current .277/.323/.471 line equates to a .341 wOBA. His ISO is .194.

The biggest reason for Morales’ power decline is an increase in ground balls hit. In 2009, he hit grounders at a 42 percent clip and hit fly balls 41.1 percent. This year, Morales has chopped the ball into the grass 52.2 percent, while lofting pitches just 29.1 percent. Good things continue to happen when Morales hits a fly ball–his home run/fly ball rate is 23.1 percent this season, higher than last year’s 18.1 HR/FB%–he’s just not hitting as many of them.

Worm burners are death to power numbers–for example, ground balls hit in the AL in 2010 have a .232 slugging percentage, compared to .580 for fly balls. During his career, Morales has a .261 slugging percentage on grounders and an .827 slugging percentage on fly balls.

Moving forward, Morales should show some improvement. His BABIP this year is just .272, compared to a career .297 BABIP. For the rest of 2010, ZiPS projects a .285/.331/.479 performance (.352 wOBA). That’s semi-useful, but anyone expecting Morales to suddenly mash like he did last year will likely be disappointed. He’s a good hitter, but that ’09 line looks like an outlier.