The sweet swing of Rockies 1st Baseman Justin Morneau
Colorado Rockies 2014 Player Season Review – Justin Morneau
This begins the series of looking back on the season of those on the 40 man roster and important others players (prospects primarily as well as 60-day DL players). Where better to begin with than the first base position and the player who played the most games while still getting league-wide recognition.
Before we begin with Justin’s season in breakdown mode, it is natural for Rockies fans to compare his season with that of the player who nearly was the 1st baseman of the future, one Jose Abreu. The Rockies almost got Abreau, only nipped at the post by the White Sox. The Rockies going all in on a Cuban player isn’t that surprising, as we have seen two other Cubans go to mid-market teams in the past, both as surprises. The Oakland A’s, whose budgetar issues are greater than the Rockies dropped a big payday on Yoenis Cespedes. Then the Reds snuck in at the last moment to secure Aroldis Chapman. So the Rockies nearly getting Abreu was not a surprise, but is going to stick in the craw of a lot of Rockies’s fans for years to come. In year 1, this is the comparsion:
Morneau (age 33) – Games 135 ABs 550 Hits 160 2B 32 3B 3 HR 17 RBI 82 BA – .319 OBP .364 OPS .860
Road: BA .309 OBP .364 OPS .839 HR 6 Home: BA .327 OBP .363 OPS .878 HR 11
Abreau (age 27) – Games 145 ABs 556 Hits 176 2B 35 3B 2 HR 35 RBI 107 BA – .317 OBP .383 OPS .964
Road: BA .300 OBP .359 OPS .938 HR 21 Home: .336 OBP .410 OPS .993 HR 15
In case you are wondering, Coors Field of course is rated as the #1 hitters park (based on stats) while U.S. Cellular is rated as the 6th best hitters park, so while it is likely that Abreu would have done somewhat better in Colorado, the difference isn’t that great, and given his size, the impact of the altitude may have made it even a smaller difference over the course of 81 games (Abreu only hit 7 homers in the 2nd half, although he did hit .350 so whether he was fatigued or was pitched differently, or became more selective is hard to determine).
In year one the Rockies clearly would have benefited from having Abreu at 1st (as would just about every other team not the Detroit Tigers), but in fact aside from home runs and the ability to play 10 more games, the players were relatively similar. Of course getting 40 homers out of the clean-up spot would have been great, but at least in year 1, the loss of Abreu wasn’t a disaster (how well Abreu ages is still a question – at 6’3” and 255 it will be interesting to watch when he hits the age 30 and further seasons as both the Rockies and White Sox deals were 6 year deals). If the Rockies had offered just $6 million more…
On to Justin Morneau, who signed a 2-year, $12.5 million dollar deal last off-season with a mutual option for 2016. Given the issues the team has with payroll overloaded in 3 players, the low price for Morneau is a big plus. What the Rockies expected out of Morneau when they signed him was probably around 120 games, great defense, around 15 homers, and a .280 average. That would have been a solid season, along the lines of his friend Micheal Cuddyer’s first year (FanGraphs projected .258/.330/.428). Instead, they got one of the best seasons of any 1st baseman in the NL.
His defense, and sorry, I am still not a big believer in most defensive statistics yet, was solid to great, providing security for the team’s infielders that if they throw it over to 1st anywhere near the bag he would get the ball. His defense was an upgrade over Todd Helton’s last 2 years as his hip slowed him down and made it more difficult to cover ground and make the acrobatic plays that are necessary at 1st. If you want to look at the analytic stats on fielding, he is shown under two different measures as saving 3 runs – almost at the level of above average by the definitions, but 1st base defensive stats are particularly hard to measure because of the difficulty in measuring throws to 1st and their difficulty. He did rate out as #1 in range factor among 1st baseman this season…not bad. Regardless of the stats, we can agree, he was a plus for the team defensively (he had two seasons with 16+ runs saved and has been in the discussion for Gold Gloves several times.
Now to the offense. Something that jumps out right away is that he was one of the most consistent in hitting away from Coors, having a nearly identical OBP and close in OPS both home and road. For those who claim he won the batting title because of Coors, look at the .309 on the road, and think of the pitching parks he plays in most – Dodgers Stadium, Petco Park, and AT&T Park. Think of the great pitchers, especially lefties, in the NL West – Kershaw, Bumgarner, Greinke (RHP) just to name 3, and of course a slew of great lefty relievers. So, he earned that NL Batting Title and anyone who says Coors Field was the cause is just a typical Rockie hater.
How did the season go? There were a lot of questions about Morneau after his poor performance (in terms of power) at the end of 2013 with Pittsburg. He quickly dispelled that in March/April, hitting .343 with 6 homers and a .985 OPS. While that was the high water mark, he was pretty consistent throughout the year. May was the low point (in so many ways for so many players) as he hit only .269 with 4 homers (and a .796 OPS). June saw him rebound to .327/.812 with 3 more homers. He was worthy of an All Star bid, hitting .313/.847 and 13 homers in the first half of the season. And of course a number of those homers were big homers at key times. The 2nd half, as in 2013, saw a big dropoff in terms of homers, which is the stat everyone watches, but he still hit well at .329/.883 even with just the 4 homers (his slugging dropped from .501 to .485 in the 2nd half, pretty close and strong numbers).
When looking at the 2nd half it is also important to remember how shredded the lineup was by that point, with Tulo, CarGo and Cuddy gone for much of the 2nd half. Still he put up .315/.780 with 0 homers in July and .301/.792 and 1 homer in August. What has to give the Rockies confidence for 2015 is how he finished the season, as beginning with September 1 he hit .361/.963 and 3 homers (and his 2nd highest slugging number of the season at .542) in 20 games, enabling him to come from behind and claim the batting title from Josh Harrison.
Looking deeper into the numbers shows that Morneau, while no longer the big bopper he was earlier in his career, he has become more selective, especially in high leverage and important settings. His strikeout to walk ratio in 2014 was 60/34, a big improvement over the 110/50 in 2013 (in 85 more PA). He has always been far more selective than most power hitters (notice what happened to the numbers for Mike Trout this year, not a good direction for his long-term production). When there were 2 outs and RISP he hit a solid .288/.846 with 2 homers and 22 RBIs (62 PA) and in late and close game situations, he hit .275/.796 with 2 homers and 14 RBIs (90 PA). In situations which are classified as high leverage (based on score, potential of winning and the like) he hit an amazing .408/1.159 with 5 homers (in 112 PA), as compared to low leverage situations .258/.669 and 4 homers (in 242 PA). This is particular telling in that many of the high leverage situations are against tough relievers, often lefties, and thus shows Morneau can bear down, concentrate, and get the job done. Another way to look at this is that in innings 7-9, he hit a solid .282/.764 with 3 homers (in 153 PA), almost always against lefty specialist or tough relievers. Another way to look at his performance is with 2 outs in an inning, where he hit .292/.804 with 5 homers. While he is a far better hitter on the first pitch of an AB (.317/.819 with 4HR) he still battles well with 2 strikes, hitting a decent .258/.686 with 4 homers. When the game was on the line, when they needed big hits, Justin Morneau gave them what they needed.
Now to the big surprise – Morneau wasn’t awful against lefties. He started off hot against lefties, slumped mid-season, and finished decently – with an overall .254/.665 and 3 homers (139 PA). I know early in the season there were a lot of fans saying he didn’t need to sit against lefties (other than tough lefties), but clearly he is much better against righties (.341/.927 with 14 homers in 411 PA). If Cuddyer had been healthy much of the season or had Kyle Parker been able to step in and become the right handed option in the outfield and 1B he might have had even fewer PA. But this is a big increase over his recent seasons – 2013 – .207, 2012 – .232, 2011 – .144.
Rating for 2014 – A solid A-. While the team would have liked more power from the 1st base position in general, it is hard to complain about a batting title, an OPS of .860 is pretty good, even more so when the salary of only $5 million. When you look at other factor the grade seems even better. He gave them 135 games, which is about as many as they want a player over 30 to play. He did have a single DL stint for his neck issues (a long-time issue), so his 135 games played is very solid. He was able to man the 3rd, 4th, and 5th spots in the lineup regularly and gave solid to very good production. Within the NL West there are a number of very good 1st basemen, such as Paul Goldschmidt and Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez hit more homers in 159 games last year (27) but had a lower BA and OPS but 5.1 runs saved defensively while being paid $21 million while Goldschmidt hit .300/.938 with 19 homers, with 1.1 runs saved while playing only 109 games and being paid only $1 million. Clearly Goldschmidt is the class of 1st basemen in the NL West and a great deal financially (though sadly for only 109 games), but Morneau provided more value than Gonzalez (another comp is Adam Larouche, with his .259/.817, 26HR and -5.2 defensive runs saved at a salary of $12 million).
Morneau was a steal in 2014, worthy of an A- grade, and one of the few bright spots of the season.
2015 Preview – Can Morneau stay healthy and play in 145 games in 2015? That is doubtful. Will he hit over .300 again? It is certainly possible, especially with his low strikeout total and playing 81 games at Coors. Will he give them solid to very good defense? Absolutely – he works very hard at this part of his game and at age 34 there is no reason to think he will slips. Can he hit essentially identically on the road as at home again? No, the history of Rockies players is that players who excel on the road one year usually decline after a 2nd season at Coors. What is scary is how bad this team was on the road when its #3 or #4 hitter was hitting so well on the road – what might 2015 road record look like if Morneau falls .050 points on the road? His salary rises to $7.5 million in 2015, which is still relatively low, but again is pushing the budget to difficult levels.
Most likely: Morneau performs well and if the team is either performing poorly or a respectable right-handed bat steps forward to play 1st (Parker or Ben Paulsen?), then Morneau will be dealt at the trade deadline. While there is a mutual 2016 option for $9 million (at age 35) if Morneau is playing well enough for the Rockies to activate that option he would likely head the free agent route to secure a multi-year deal (likely his last of his career) and if he is not performing well enough to make it likely he gets a better deal in 2016 from someone else, why would the Rockies agree to the option. The only two scenarios I can see where Morneau plays out the season for the Rockies is 1) they are in real competition for the wild card or division playoff spot and cannot afford to let go of a great defending solid hitting 1B or 2) there really is nothing in the pipeline at 1st, as Parker, Paulsen and others at AA or higher bomb out and Morneau is playing well but not great, making the 2016 option a necessity for both sides. I hope #1 occurs (baseball is funny, if you get enough guys to have career years, anything can happen), but it is likely that Justin Morneau won’t be with the Rockies on September 1, 2015.
Next Up: DJ LeMahieu