BRADENTON, Fla. – “I just want to play baseball and start living my dream.”
Before the 2015 season, Max Moroff was probably just another name on a list of players in the Pirates’ minor league system that you didn’t really know anything about. That all changed last year, as the young shortstop began the season with a 30 game on-base streak and never looked back. Named the Pirates Minor League Player of the Year last September after a breakout campaign, the 2012 16th round draft pick is now a Pirates Prospects household name.
Where did this Moroff kid come from?
As a part of my trip to sunny Bradenton two weeks ago, I was able to catch up with Moroff and talk with him more about his background, family, and what drives him. Covering Altoona last season, I obviously had the privilege to cover the likes of Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow; however, Moroff was the guy who stole the show more often than not in the early part of the year. He’s a fairly quiet guy around the clubhouse and with the media, but his leadership and influence within the locker room was striking through a strong work ethic and lead-by-example demeanor. He has that often-spoken-of slow heartbeat (Hurdle-ism) and kept the game in perspective.
So, what led to Moroff having such strong character traits as one of the youngest members of the clubhouse?
Moroff comes from a baseball family. His older brother Jay was a Division II pitcher at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Max’s father, Dr. Daniel B. Moroff, was drafted by the Yankees in the 11th round of the 1977 Amateur Draft and played A-ball for three seasons. Dr. Moroff, part owner of the Exum Choripractic Clinic in Orlando, worked with his son on his game quite often while he was growing up in Orlando. It was also Max’s father that motivated him to become a switch hitter when he was 16 years old.
A dominant right-handed hitter, Moroff would take some lefty cuts at the end of his workouts, leading to the decision.
“We were just messing with it one day,” said Moroff. “After I would take batting practice right-handed, I would just hop over to the other side and take about 20 swings from the left. It just continued to progress from there.”
As a 5′ 11″, 16-year-old teenager, Moroff knew that he needed to do everything he could to catch the eye of college and professional scouts.
“I thought it would be good for the college scouts, and possibly for the pro scouts,” Moroff said. “That was the goal back then when you are 16 years old.”
Moroff’s path to big time baseball started at an even younger age, though, as his Maitland Little League All-Star team made it to the Semifinals in the Little League World Series back in 2005. Moroff was even recognized by his baseball idol Call Ripken, Jr. while playing in the tournament, being told that the youngster reminded Ripken of himself when he was his age. (Check out this article from WESH Orlando that talks about the elder Moroff and his son while in Williamsport in 2005.)
All of the hard work paid off for Moroff, as he had numerous All Region and All American accolades from Under Armour and Perfect Game USA in high school. However, he felt it was best to put his professional career on hold as he committed to attend the University of Central Florida out of Trinity Prep. The Pirates, on the other hand, had other thoughts in mind. They drafted Moroff in the 16th round of the 2012 Draft and made an over-slot bonus cash offer to the high school shortstop after the organization failed to sign first round draft pick Mark Appel. They were relentless to get Moroff in the organization, and eventually offered him $300,000 to sign.
“They just kept calling and calling,” Moroff said about the Pirates after the draft. “They would say, ‘this is what we have, and this is what we can do’. They would call at least twice a week. I kept saying that I was going to college.”
Moroff, who didn’t have an agent at the time, was actually already enrolled at UCF and taking summer classes. After discussions with his family, he ultimately made the decision to go pro.
“I was like, ‘you know what, I just want to play baseball and start living my dream’.”
Perhaps he took his own advice from two years prior.
Found this in my dresser pic.twitter.com/7iO8Dluz
— Max Moroff (@Max_Moroff) October 20, 2012
I asked Moroff what he would’ve went to college for if he had decided to stick around at UCF. His answer was easy.
Ultimately, it seemed like he made the correct decision to go pro when he did, as he continues to ascend through the Pirates’ organization.
A below average-to-mediocre batting average and OPS in 2013 and 2014 at West Virginia and Bradenton, combined with average defense, did not scream promotion for Moroff in 2015, but the Pirates aggressively pushed him to Double-A Altoona last year. It turned out that Moroff was the classic case of the stats not meeting the eye test. The Pirates recognized that, thus the aggressive promotion for the high school draft pick.
Moroff batted .323 with an .826 OPS through the first three months of the season in Altoona last year, including the 30 game on base streak. Tim Williams wrote before last season started that Moroff “works deep in the count waiting for that one pitch to drive”, leading to high walks and not the greatest strikeout rate. He made adjustments going into the season with hitting coach Kevin Riggs, relaxing in the box, gaining rhythm in his hands, and getting more aggressive against the opposing pitcher. Consequently, Moroff’s strikeout rate dropped over 6% last season from 2014, and his OPS jumped 118 points. The power went up while striking out less, and that is a great way to be successful playing professional baseball.
“I used to swing like it was a 0-0 count,” Moroff said about his swing before last season. “I would be swinging too hard. Last year, I cut down how hard I was swinging with two strikes.”
As you can see below, the approach has carried over to this spring, as Moroff has been able to use the whole field while batting, cut down on his swing with two strikes, and utilize his fast hands to get through the baseball.
— Sean McCool (@NotSoMcCool) March 6, 2016
Going into this season, the focus has been on where Moroff will be playing in the field. So far this spring, Moroff has bounced around between both second base, where he played the majority of the time last season until late in the year, third base, where he got playing time late last year, and shortstop, his natural position.
“I guess the new thing this year is playing different positions,” Moroff said. “I’ve been getting reps at third, short, and second. I’m just getting as many reps as I can.”
Clint Hurdle and the Pirates staff have emphasized versatility and playing multiple positions with players like Moroff, Adam Frazier, and Dan Gamache this spring as a way to make those players more valuable. This also helps provide them multiple paths to the big leagues.
The most difficult transition for Moroff this year would be the extended look at third base, but being on the same side of the infield as shortstop has made it easier.
“It’s my newest position since I grew up at shortstop and then they moved me to second,” Moroff said. “It’s the same view and side of the bag as shortstop, so that transition has been easier for me. The ball just gets there quicker. I feel comfortable, though.”
The 2015 Minor League Player of Year has his mind set to begin 2016 as he did in Altoona last season.
“I just want to go out there and play every game like it’s my last,” said Moroff. “No numbers, I just want to play my heart out.”
There’s that character we talked about. There’s also one small thing that his dad has from his time with the Yankees that continues to drive his son to “play his heart out” day in and day out.
“He has a World Series ring at home,” said the younger Moroff. “Back then, minor league guys got rings, too. It’s the coolest thing in the world; it motivates me every day.”