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Kendrys Morales’ turnaround

After a dreadful start, Morales found his groove.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

I really didn’t like the Blue Jays signing Kendrys Morales. I thought they jumped the gun in signing him for 3 years at 33 million. Besides money, there were a whole of other factors that did not make sense. To make matters worse his first half of the contract did not live up to whatever expectations Blue Jays had for him as their everyday DH.

However, in the last few months Morales seems to have turned his season around. After a dreadful start, he’s now slashing .263/.341/.477 with 20 home runs in 393 plate appearances - good for 118 wRC+. In fact, among all designated hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, Morales ranks 8th in wRC+, slightly better than 113 wRC+ league average from the DH spot this season. Additionally, on Saturday Morales tied Jose Cruz Jr.’s club record of hitting a home run in six consecutive games. Major league record is 8 games jointly held by Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly, and Dale Long.

Earlier this season, his dreadful start prompted calls for Blue Jays to DFA Morales, and justifiably so- his wRC+ in April was 34 followed by 82 in May. Since then he’s posted numbers above league average every month. Here’s how his monthly breakdown looks for this season (as of Aug 24).

Morales - Monthly Splits

Mar/Apr 58 1 0.160 0.259 0.240 0.080 34
May 79 3 0.233 0.291 0.411 0.178 82
Jun 92 4 0.277 0.326 0.482 0.205 116
Jul 85 4 0.338 0.459 0.574 0.235 178
Aug 75 7 0.265 0.333 0.574 0.309 143

His numbers have progressively gotten better as the year has gone on. Not only is he making consistent contact, he’s also hitting for more power and striking out less. His K rate in the first half of the season was 22.6 percent while it’s been 13.8 percent thus far in the second half. For his career Morales has struck out at a rate of 18.4 percent.

A few things have changed since the beginning of the season. For starters, Morales has ditched the glasses that he was wearing at the start of the season. In April, Morales hit 55.6 percent ground balls and only 8.3 percent line drives. Since then, his ground ball rate has steadily declined while the line drive rate has crept up. The ground ball rate is slightly up again in August. His fly ball percentage, however, remained steady throughout the years. This probably indicates two extreme scenarios: First, earlier in the year a lot of his fly balls stayed in the ball park indicating some bad struck. Second, as the year played out an unsustainably high number of fly balls left the ball park indicating massively good fortune.

His Statcast numbers are always curious. Even in a down year like 2017, his xwOBA was .367 while this year it’s .414 indicating that he’s been unlucky. In fact, his xwOBA has been higher than his actual wOBA every single year since 2015. Does this indicate that he’s been unlucky for 4 seasons or that the xwOBA does not correlate with actual performance as much as we thought? That’s an exercise I’ll leave for smarter people. What what it’s worth, his exit velocity is also the highest this year since 2015 as is his barrel rate.

Morales is somewhat a free swinger and he’ll rack up his share of strikeouts. He’ll also hit into double plays. At the risk of sounding cliche, the key for Morales like all good hitters is to avoid hitting ground balls. It seems like he’s quite productive when’s able to hit line drives.

Another aspect of Morales’ game that is frustrating is that year over year, it’s difficult to tell which side he would hit better from (he’s a switch-hitter). This year he’s been terrible from the right side and quite good from his left side, while it was the other way round last year.

His numbers suggest that he’s still a league average or slightly better hitter. For him to remain a viable DH option for the Blue Jays, league average his not enough and he consistently needs to be 15-20% better than the league. Given his tendency, his hit profile and his history, this seems like an unlikely scenario over a full season.

How hot does Morales stay the rest of the way? I don’t know but it seems like his early season struggles were a combination of high ground ball rate and some bad luck. If it weren’t for $11 million owed to him next year, I’m sure some team making a push late in the season may have found value in trading for him as a power option on the bench. No matter how hot he stays, the 2019 price tag will keep buyers beware.

Azam Farooqui is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @afarooqui21