Monday, March 1, 2010

The Breaks: Morneau

When Justin Morneau took over 1B for good in the middle of the 2004 season, I didn't just think that the Twins were sure to snap their drought of 30 HR seasons. That was certain to happen, based on the young slugger's 19 HR in just 280 AB that season. No, I figured the Twins were going to have their first 40 HR hitter since Harmon Killebrew. Though Morneau hit just .271/.340/.536, hardly the most slugtastic line we'd seen in that juiced-up period, his combined total between the Majors and AAA in 2004 was 41 HR in 568 AB. In Rochester, he'd been slugging close to 1.000. Surely, if he could accomplish that as a 23 year-old rookie, he was bound to repeat the feat soon in a full season for the Twins.

This May, Morneau will turn 29. Some would say he's already peaked. And his career averages with the stick are .280/.350/.501 - actually lower than what he put up in his rookie year - with about 30 HR/162 G. Most of the projections I've seen for his 2010 season so far have him hitting around that, but with improved OBP. PECOTA has him at .284/.372/.508 with 29 HR. After 5+ seasons and about 3500 PA, we should know what kind of player Morneau is, and that projection looks about right based on his career so far. He's a good 1B, not a great one.

But I still think of Morneau as a 40 HR guy who is underachieving. Why? Because, with the exception of a fluky 2008 in which more drives than usual found the top of the wall (leading to a career-high 47 2B, but only 23 HR), the guy has consistently put himself on pace through the first 2/3 of the season to hit 40 HR. Look at his numbers through the end of July from the last 4 seasons:

2006: .321/.364/.601, 28 HR
2007: .297/.363/.574, 28 HR
2008: .321/.396/.534, 18 HR
2009: .305/.390/.576, 26 HR

And remember, last year the season started a week later than the previous years. Give him a few days into August and it goes up to .301/.391/.589 with 28 HR.

So from the start of the season until the 1st of August, Morneau is a .311/.379/.570 hitter with 35-40 HR power. That's somebody who fits right in with Miguel Cabrera and Mark Teixeira. A great 1B.

Unfortunately, once the calendar turns to August, things invariably go downhill. His combined line from August 1st on since 2006: .255/.334/.406 with 12-15 HR power. That's somebody who fits right in with Brendan Harris. If that's what you're getting from your 1B, you've got problems. And even that line is propped up a bit by his strong finish to 2006. Look at his BA over the last 4 seasons:

And then his OPS:

4 years of Aprils, Mays, Junes and Julys make 16 individual months. In just 2 of those months did Morneau have a BA below .250, and his OPS dipped below .750 in just one. But he failed to meet those thresholds in 5 of the 8 individual Augusts and Septembers over those seasons. Basically, that means Morneau is about 10 times more likely to hit poorly in the last 2 months of the season as he is in the first 4 months. And even in the 3 late-season months in which he didn't suck, he still wasn't hitting HR anywhere close to his early season pace. Look at what happens to his power:

His IsoP has been above .200 in 13 out of 16 months from April-July. But it's never been above .200 in August or September.

This isn't a matter of luck - variances in BABIP or the like. This is a systemic problem with Morneau himself. He runs out of gas before the season is over. He may have thought it was a problem with his conditioning. Maybe that's why he's trained so hard in the offseason, reported early to spring training, and showed up first thing in the morning to work on his hitting. But that regimen hasn't paid off. He still wore down over the course of 2008, playing all 163 games and fading badly enough down the stretch to cost the Twins the division and himself a 2nd MVP award. Then he arrived in game shape by mid-February 2009 so he could go off to play for Canada in the WBC (and hit quite well in their brief appearance). Though Gardy tried to give him more days off and at DH, Morneau still broke down by mid-August, when he missed a week, and finally shut things down 3 weeks before the end of the season.

Time to try a different approach. That's why reading these stories has given me new hope for Morneau in 2010. If he can adjust his training schedule so that he doesn't reach his previous mid-February shape until the first week of April, could that mean that he won't reach his early-August fatigue level until late September? What would it mean for the Twins if he could sustain that .311/.379/.570 line through the final 2 months of the season?

The PECOTA projection I gave above, combined with his typical, above-average defense, would be worth 3.9 WARP. His 80th percentile projection is for .306/.391/.577 with 38 HR. That season would be worth 5.8 WARP. If Morneau's lighter offseason workload can translate into a more consistent full season, it could mean 2 more wins for the Twins. And we all know from the last 2 seasons how far an extra couple of wins can take a team in the AL Central.

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