Michael Morse, a bargain waiting to happen

Could Michael Morse be a bargain for the 2014 season? - Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Morse struggled mightily in 2013, but the 31-year old could be a bargain pickup for teams willing to roll the dice.

Michael Morse is somewhat of an enigma. He’s had one really, really good year. That was indeed 2011, a year in which he was a three-win player, sporting a wRC+ of 148 and an ISO close to .150. And he’s also had a couple of good but not great years, and one gosh darn awful year, which was indeed 2013.

If you want to get technical, yes, you could point out that Morse is not super-duper unpredictable, as technically, he’s been an above average hitter ever since he started getting consistent at-bats in 2010, with 2013 being the obvious of obvious outliers (78 wRC+, 22% below league average). Above average, in this case, has one restriction: A wRC+ north of 100. Morse easily meets that requirement.

Year wRC+
2010 133
2011 148
2012 113

That’s pretty good, at least on the surface. Teams will surely fork out premium dollars knowing exactly what they’re paying for, just like the Red Sox did with A.J. Pierzynski.

The same would apply to Morse, but there’s one startling caveat: The sample sizes during his above average years (2010-2012). They’re erratic, and even deceiving, to a certain degree. If you really want to oversimplify it: Morse has had one full year (575 plate appearances) and, unsurprisingly that was 2011, when he golfed 31 home runs with the Nationals.

The injury bug is the inevitable wrinkle. If we add up all the games Morse missed in 2013 (courtesy of Baseball Prospectus’ injury log), we come to a total of 54. It’s not a ton, but it is tedious amount when you factor in the rehab, the lingering effects, and the fact that those 54 missed games weren’t just devoted to one big injury -- he had thigh problems, wrist problems, and finger problems at the beginning of the year.

So no, Morse is not as predictable as we initially thought. His production is intriguing, but a larger sample size would obviously be preferred. So would a cleaner injury track record.

We could continue to sit here and poke at the Morse’s flaws, but for all his flaws, he does have the ingredients of a bargain-type addition. And in saying that, I’m implying that he’ll come on the cheap. Which is a reasonable forecast, given his woeful walk year and erratic production. Sure, he isn’t that far removed from his 2011 campaign, but it’s a "what have you done for me now" situation. Morse hasn’t done much, so he won’t get much.

It’s easy to deem someone like Morse a bargain because he fits the ordinary template of a potential bargain -- someone fresh off a rough, injury-plagued year, looking to restore some value. It’s typical to notice those circumstances and circle that player as a bargain. And while that theory may hold true in some instances, it’s not what entirely validates Morse as a potential bargain bin pickup.

See, while Morse’s numbers were undoubtedly paltry, nothing about him really changed. In fact, his 2013 campaign was eerily similar to his fantastic 2011 campaign from a batted balls perspective.

Observe:

Year LD% FB% GB% IFFB%
2011 19.5 36.5 44.0 4.8
2013 19.5 35.8 44.7 6.2

I’m not seeing much variance. Morse still hit the ball hard, and he kept it in the air, which is a good combination for him. Normally, ground balls are better than fly balls, yes, but Morse doesn’t pack enough speed to consistently beat out slow-rolling grounders. Plus, putting the ball into the air opens the window for a home run. That’s more Morse-like.

Just going off those batted ball percentages, you’d have to think that 2011 and 2013 were similar. Maybe you would prefer a bit more background before reaching a conclusion, such as a rundown on Morse’s approach in 2011 versus 2013. In a nutshell, there wasn’t much divergence. Again. He chased pitches outside of the zone almost exactly as much and he swung at pitches inside of the zone more frequently.

The two exceptions include the 10% gap in Morse’s O-Contact percentages and the roughly 4% gap in the SwSr% department -- 2011 was better in both cases. But we can speculate that Morse’s wrist problems could have skewed both his O-Contact% and SwSr%. Just think about it. Weaker wrists make reaching for pitches much more difficult, and it’s an injury that lingers. Of course, that could just be gibberish, but it’s worth some thought.

However, what we have are two similar sets of numbers, both from a batted balls perspective and an approach perspective. Not identical, but very similar. But as you already know, 2011 and 2013 are complete opposites in terms of Morse’s production. Even that might be understating the differences. They were that different.

What can we chalk this up to?

There’s a very simple answer: Morse’s 2013 BABIP (.254) was nearly 100 points off course from his 2011 BABIP (.344) and about 80 points off his career BABIP of .330.

The small sample size caveat does have its place in this conversation, but we’re probably better off kicking it to the curb and simply asking ourselves this question: Is Morse really going to run into horrible luck again in 2014? Probably not. He doesn’t have the whole speed thing going for him, but it’s simply far-fetched to think that he won’t catch better luck in 2014. Even some degree of better fortune will have his numbers back to a level of respectability.

And the projections back this up. Steamer sees Morse producing a 114 wRC+ in 494 plate appearances on a .308 BABIP next year, good for about a win above replacement.

If you’re an optimist, you might pencil him in for, say, 580 plate appearances and a .325 BABIP. That’s a bit far-fetched, and it also assumes that he’d secure a starting role from the get-go. But hey, it’d basically be 2011 all over again. Bargain alert. Heck, MVP candidate alert.

Though if you’re a pessimist, you figure he lands a gig as a mere platoon partner and falls short of the 400 plate appearances plateau. That isn’t an unreasonable scenario, given that he doesn’t have much leverage, even if his career stats versus lefties and righties don’t tilt heavily in either way (career .354 wOBA against lefties, .349 against righties).

Or...maybe Morse finds an in between, where he eventually nabs an everyday role after a couple months of successful platooning with an incompetent partner.

Whatever niche Morse carves out for himself, he is a good candidate to be a bargain. And who doesn’t love a bargain?

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Jake Dal Porto is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and Golden Gate Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.

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