Justin Morneau: A Pleasant “Surprise”

Morneau (AP)

Para la traducción al Español,haz click aquí.
 
Much has been said about former AL MVP Justin Morneau since the Colorado Rockies announced his signing this past offseason to fill the void left at first base by Todd Helton. Fans and media alike, for the most part thought poorly about the move. Our own Richard Bergstrom gave us his take on the subject here at Rockies Zingers, saying the Rockies could get good value out of the deal, but it could also  interfere with giving young guys a try in the near future or signing other free agents. Also, the move was seen by most as the real return in the Dexter Fowler trade. That trade freed up some salary, which was almost immediately used to sign Morneau to a two-year deal, so it’s understandable people see it that way. 

Normally, there’s nothing wrong with signing a 32-year-old former MVP to a $12.5M contract for two years, plus a team option for the third year. In this case, however, it is a bit of a gamble considering the fact that Morneau suffered a concussion halfway through the 2010 season that almost took him out of the game for good, and has seriously diminished his production for the past three years. In order to have a better idea of the downfall Morneau has experienced, we’ll look at the numbers before and after the concussion. For the pre-concussion numbers, we’ll use the five-year period before the injury, including the 2010 season.

Pre-concussion vs Post-concussion
Stat 2006-2010 2011-2013
AVG 0.298 0.256
OBP 0.372 0.319
SLG 0.528 0.407
ISO 0.230 0.151
wOBA 0.380 0.316
wRC+ 133 98
BB% 10.6% 7.9%
K% 14.0% 17.1%

The concept of wOBA is similar to OPS  (which measures on-base ability and power combined). However, instead of using total bases for each event (i.e.: 2 for a double, 4 for a HR, etc.), it uses statistically calculated coefficients based on run expectancy values. wRC+ is basically a league and park adjusted comparison of wOBA to league average, where every point above or below 100 is a percentage point above or below average.

The differences between the pre-concusssion numbers and the post-concussion ones are stunning, and quite frankly also worrisome for the Rockies. The decrease in production is evident across the board, going from a well-above average hitter to a below average one. It’s important to point out that sample size is not an issue here, the post-injury numbers come from nearly 1500 plate appearances, which is half of the 3000 PAs accounted for in the 2006-2010 period. So from a statistical point of view, the addition of Justin Morneau does not seem like a very smart thing to do. Not if his performance is going to be anywhere near his 2011-2013 numbers.

Justin Morneau (AP)

Justin Morneau, the Rockies’ new first baseman (AP)

Depending on who you ask, the value of a win these days sits somewhere between $5M and $7M, which is almost exactly what Morneau is getting paid for 2014 and 2015, respectively. He has to be at least a 1.0 WAR player, in order for the deal to make financial sense. In the last three years, Morneau has a weighted average of 0.3 WAR per season. Even if we take out the first year after returning from the concussion, in which he produced -0.7 wins, we get an average of about 0.6 WAR. If his production stays around those values, the Rockies will have clearly overpayed for him.

Fortunately, there is more to evaluating a player than just stats, and the Rockies must have seen enough progress in him to believe he’s going to be worth their money. So far (and I know the season is still really young) their faith has been rewarded. Morneau’s performance has wildly exceeded expectations, posting even stronger numbers than his pre-concussion self, albeit in a really small sample size. Let’s look at the same table shown before, but with an added column for 2014 (stats as of 04/21).

Comparing 2014
Stat 2006-2010 2011-2013 2014
AVG 0.298 0.256 0.344
OBP 0.372 0.319 0.371
SLG 0.528 0.407 0.609
ISO 0.230 0.151 0.266
wOBA 0.380 0.316 0.419
wRC+ 133 98 152
BB% 10.6% 7.9% 4.3%
K% 14.0% 17.1% 11.4%

Usually, it’s not advisable to get too deep into analyzing such a small amount of playing time, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway, keeping in mind that most of these numbers will eventually regress. Time will tell if they regress towards his pre-concussion averages or if they’ll follow the same trend of the last three years (let’s hope for the former).

There are a couple of things worth noting when looking at this year’s performance so far. He’s walking a lot less, which would indicate a more aggressive approach at the plate, but he’s also striking out less. So let’s take a look at his plate discipline numbers to see if we can get a better grasp of what’s going on. In the following table, the first three rows indicate the percentages of pitches that Morneau has swung at, depending on the location. O-Swing% is for pitches outside of the strike zone, Z-Swing% for pitches inside the zone, and Swing% for overall pitches. The next three rows represent the contact rate for the same three locations.

Plate Discipline
Stat 2006-2010 2011-2013 2014
O-Swing% 30.5% 37.1% 38.7%
Z-Swing% 70.1% 74.1% 78.3%
Swing% 49.1% 52.6% 55.7%
O-Contact% 66.8% 69.2% 78.2%
Z-Contact% 89.6% 88.1% 90.4%
Contact% 82.1% 80.4% 85.5%
SwStr% 8.6% 10.2% 8.5%

The numbers confirm that in fact Morneau has been more aggressive at the plate, although this is not a new approach. After returning from the concussion, his overall swinging percentage went up more than three points. A lot of those swings were coming on balls outside of the strike zone, evidenced by his O-Swing% going from 30.5% to 37.1%. He did make more contact in those pitches, as shown by his O-Contact% going up two points, but he made less contact on pitches inside the zone, which led to a drop in his overall contact percentage.

This year, the approach has been very similar to the last three years. In fact, he’s being even more aggressive, swinging at almost 56% of the overall pitches. Fortunately, this increase has been mainly on pitches inside the zone, with his Z-Swing% going up to 78.3%. But the real key has been making more contact, especially in pitches outside of the zone. While his contact in the strike zone rose back to his pre-injury levels, his out of the zone contact spiked to almost 78%, as opposed to 67% in the seasons preceding the concussion. This caused his overall contact rate to increase up to 85.5%. 

That’s great. But can he hit lefties?

Another big question everyone had about Morneau this past offseason was his ability – or lack thereof – to hit left-handed pitching. The initial thought was that he had such extreme splits that he was going to be heavily platooned. But was there any reason to expect these splits? If you believe the Rockies are getting the Morneau from the last three years, the answer is yes. On the other hand, if you expect him to be more like the old Morneau, then no. In the next table, we’ll see the splits for the periods before and after the concussion, and also the splits for 2014 (again, stats as of 04/21).

Splits against RHP and LHP
Stat 2006-2010 2011-2013 2014
vs RHP vs LHP vs RHP vs LHP vs RHP vs LHP
AVG 0.308 0.283 0.282 0.206 0.340 0.357
OBP 0.396 0.331 0.356 0.246 0.370 0.375
SLG 0.550 0.492 0.481 0.274 0.620 0.571
ISO 0.243 0.210 0.198 0.068 0.280 0.214
wOBA 0.397 0.353 0.358 0.232 0.425 0.399
wRC+ 145 115 128 41 156 139
BB% 12.8% 6.8% 9.9% 4.1% 3.7% 6.3%
K% 13.7% 14.8% 15.3% 21.2% 13.0% 6.3%

Before 2011, his splits were not extreme at all, as a matter of fact he was quite good against lefties. After the injury, however, he became just a terrible hitter against left-handed pitching while still managing to hit righties at an above average rate, thus reinforcing the idea of a platoon role.

Prior to the season, everyone suspected that Walt Weiss wouldn’t be as strict as he should in platooning Morneau at first base. So far this suspicion has been confirmed, as Morneau has started in two of the five games the Rockies have faced a left-handed starter. It’s still way too early to know if this is going to work out or not, but in 16 plate appearances against lefties he’s no problem whatsoever, posting a crazy 139 wRC+ (yes, I know that’s not going to hold up).

The Rockies’ Front Office certainly took a gamble with Justin Morneau, and it’s understandable that fans had doubts about the move. For now, though, it seems the move has paid off. If he keeps up this pace, he could end up being a huge bargain, and it’ll make the guys from the Front Office look really smart.

About Juan Pablo Zubillaga

Venezuelan die-hard Colorado Rockies fan. In addition to watching and analyzing as much baseball as I can, I'm also a Chemical Engineer // Venezolano, fanático de los Colorado Rockies. Además de ver y analizar la mayor cantidad de béisbol posible, también soy Ingeniero Químico.
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