I was sitting in the PNC Park press box during the workout day before the Wild Card game, writing up a few of my previews while the Pirates were taking batting practice. I was distracted briefly by one player putting on a huge power display, crushing home runs into the left field bleachers, off the batter’s eye in center field, and landing one on the second to the top level of the rotunda.
The very next night, right before the Wild Card game, the same player put on another power display, and launched another one high up on the rotunda.
This wasn’t a new thing. I saw this player putting on a show when I was covering the team at Wrigley Field a week earlier. I saw the player almost hitting fans as they were walking in the gates at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, as he sent home run shots over the stands in left-center, and bounced them out to the entrance gates. I saw the same type of power in Miami at the end of August, and saw it when I was in Pittsburgh earlier that month.
There are several reasons why I’ve been saying that Michael Morse should be the first baseman for the Pirates at the start of the 2016 season, and these constant power displays were a big reason why I started having that idea. From what I’ve seen in batting practice, Morse has as much raw power as anyone on the team, including Pedro Alvarez.
That said, the power didn’t show up this year in the games. He had a .100 ISO with the Marlins, and then posted a .116 ISO with the Pirates after the trade deadline. His .275 average and .390 OBP with the team were great, but the power that landed him a two-year, $16 M deal at the start of the year wasn’t found.
But it’s not like Morse has never shown power in games. Last year he had a .196 ISO. He was at .167 in 2013, and .180 in 2012. He was above .200 from 2008-2011. In his career, including the 2015 season, his ISO is .185.
Digging deeper into the numbers, Morse had a 33.3% hard contact rate this year, which is in line with his 33.8% rate for his career. The rate was down a bit with the Pirates, at 29.2%, but it wasn’t down a significant amount. His soft contact rate of 18.3% was higher than his career total of 15.7%. However, he managed to put up power last year with a 17.8% soft contact rate, and he showed improvement with the Pirates, dropping down to 16.7%.
The biggest change for Morse was that he was hitting more line drives and ground balls, and fewer fly balls. His line drive percentage was 25.5%, which was a career high, and up from his career total of 20.4%. He had a 33.3% line drive rate with the Pirates, which probably explains the increase in his ISO.
His ground ball rate was also up, at 56.9%, which was his highest total since 2009, and way up from his 45.2% rate last year.
His fly ball rate dropped to 17.6%, down from his career 31.6% rate, and down from 33% last year. In fact, this was the only time in his career that he was below 20%, and only the second time since 2010 that he was below 33%. The fly ball rate actually dropped with the Pirates, going down to 10.4%, which might explain the higher average, since fly balls have the lowest BABIP rate of the three hit types.
Even without the power and the home runs, Morse had a .351 wOBA and a 126 wRC+, which are numbers in line with his best seasons, when he had much better power numbers. But you’d like to see your first baseman hitting for power, and after watching him so much in batting practice, I can say the power definitely hasn’t gone anywhere.
I can’t say for sure whether Morse will bounce back next year with his offense, but I can say that the talent is there. He’d be a bit of a wild card, but the upside could be huge, and there’s no risk involved, since he’s already on the roster. He hasn’t shown any platoon splits in his career, which means the Pirates won’t have to use a bench spot on a first baseman who can hit left-handers. And if it doesn’t work out, the Pirates have some options in Triple-A, with Josh Bell on pace to arrive by mid-season.
As I wrote today, the biggest problem with Pedro Alvarez this season was his defense. Morse isn’t a great defender, but he’s a big upgrade over Alvarez, which isn’t saying much. If the bat bounces back, then you’re basically getting what you’d want to see out of Alvarez at first base, only you’d be getting it from Morse instead.
There have been injury issues with Morse in the past, including this year. He missed a month this season with a strained right finger. He missed a month in 2013 with straight right quadriceps. He missed two months in 2012 with a strained right lat muscle. While that appears to make him a risk, I’m not sure that’s a big concern on the Pirates. They’ve taken injury prone guys like Russell Martin, Francisco Cervelli, Francisco Liriano, and others and have kept them healthy.
They put a big focus on keeping all of their players healthy and fresh, and while this approach draws criticism for the selective rest they give players, the results can probably be seen by the lack of injuries that Morse has dealt with in the past. Stuff like Jung-ho Kang getting wiped out at second base is unavoidable, no matter what you do. But strains and muscle pulls are things that you can try to cut down on by keeping players fresh and in great shape.
The Pirates need a first base upgrade for the start of the 2016 season. Anyone who provides a guarantee on offense and defense will probably require a multi-year contract or a big trade. Morse doesn’t provide a guarantee with his offense or his health, but you can see how he could bounce back offensively from this down year, and you can see how the Pirates could keep him healthy. He’s not going to be a great defender, but he’d be an upgrade over Alvarez in 2015. And he’s already under contract, with Los Angeles paying an unknown amount of his salary.
To me, Morse makes total sense as the first base option to start the year in 2016. The Pirates will have a limited budget this off-season, and they’ve got needs at other positions. If they gamble on Morse, they can direct their funds to other positions. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that gamble pays off, making Morse just another one of their growing list of value moves.
**2015 First Base Recap: Defense Was a Problem For Pedro Alvarez and Josh Bell. Today I broke down the defensive struggles for Pedro Alvarez, and how his value dropped, despite the same offensive numbers from 2012. I also looked at Josh Bell’s progression, which also featured poor defense, but improving offense.
**Winter Leagues: Carlos Munoz Hits First Homer of the Winter Season. Speaking of first base, Munoz continues showing off his strong hitting, while hitting for some power. I have reservations about his ability to remain a prospect in the upper levels due to his conditioning, but he’s a great story to follow and a guy to pull for.
**AFL: Big Day From Adam Frazier Leads to Glendale Victory. John Dreker with today’s recap of the AFL, which features Adam Frazier continuing his success from the regular season in his first AFL start.