INDIANAPOLIS — He knew what answer was coming.
Butch Wynegar was talking with Max Moroff late last season and the Indianapolis hitting coach had a simple question: Was Moroff having fun hitting?
They talked for a few minutes and then Moroff looked down at the ground and gave a simple answer.
This season is feeling a little different. Hitting has become a little more fun for Moroff, who is currently the organization’s 28th-ranked prospect. He’s enjoyed an early-season burst of power productivity that comes from trying to maintain a different perspective in the batter’s box.
But Moroff’s first season at Triple-A was a struggle, though there were some bright spots. He made his major league debut with the Pirates and played in two games, and led the International League with 90 walks, 24 ahead of the next closest player. However, he hit just .230 last year and that average was just .181 in July. The more Moroff struggled at the plate, the more pressure he would put on himself.
Those struggles weren’t due to a lack of effort. Wynegar labeled Moroff a “grinder,” that will do whatever work is needed. Coaches trust Moroff to take the necessary steps to succeed. But that’s where the problem arises.
“The problem is that grinding attitude sometimes wears on him and he doesn’t know how to relax,” Wynegar said. “We talked about how to get into the box, maybe put the bat on your shoulder and just breathe. I keep telling him he’s going to pass out one day in that batter’s box from not breathing.”
The goal is simple: get Moroff to change how he prepares himself before that first pitch is even delivered.
“The key thing for him is to remember relaxing is good,” Wynegar said. “Just because you’re a grinder doesn’t mean you have to be tense and tight to compete. I tell him, ‘You’re a good hitter, you’re a big league hitter. Go up there, relax and have fun. Breathe.’ That’s one of the biggest keys for him is to go up there and figure out how to stay relaxed.”
Wynegar lives near Orlando in the offseason, and Moroff is from the area, so the two spent significant time together this offseason. The two worked on all aspects of hitting with an emphasis on the mental portion, which in turn can affect the physical part of the swing.
When Moroff gets too tense at the plate, he will shrug his shoulders. In turn, the more tense those shoulders get the more that affects his swing mechanics. So, when Moroff steps into the batter’s box, he simply takes a deep breath and focuses on relaxing his shoulders. Wynegar even hinted that they use a few words that can be yelled to remind Moroff to relax and have fun hitting.
“If I’m tense I’m shrugged up, so I make sure I’m breathing,” Moroff said.
Once he’s relaxed, Moroff’s can focus on his approach against pitchers. The longstanding knock against Moroff is that he’s too selective at the plate, trying too hard to draw a walk. Moroff’s walk ratio increased from 11.4 percent in Double-A Altoona in 2015 to 17.3 percent in Triple-A Indianapolis last season. However, his strikeout ratio increased more than six percentage points during that same time-frame.
Wynegar labeled Moroff as “one of the few guys I’ve run across where I hope his walks kind of decrease.” Moroff can be so intent on drawing a walk, he takes hittable pitches. That can allow a pitcher to even the count, forcing Moroff to go from attack-mode to protect-mode.
“One thing we wanted to do was get him relaxed,” said Indianapolis manager Andy Barkett, who was previously the organization’s assistant hitting coordinator. “The other part of that was to be able to get his A-swing off more often. Because he has such a good eye, at times last year, we felt he was taking too many pitches to hit. He was getting a lot of walks, but at the same time there were pitches to hit in certain situations where he wouldn’t get his A-swing off.”
Moroff has gotten his “A-swing” off frequently during the first two weeks of this season with three home runs and three doubles. His average is only .229, but his .657 slugging and .982 OPS would easily be career-highs.
“We really worked on trying to get in a strong hitting position,” Moroff said of his off-season work with Wynegar. “Being able to recognize off-speed pitches that are in the zone, and obviously the fastball in the zone. Really anything in the zone. We just worked on getting into that position.”
And Moroff’s home runs haven’t been cheap ones that are just clearing the fence. One of them left the park out of right field, matching former Indianapolis first baseman Josh Bell for one of the longest home runs hit in Victory Field over the past year. And Moroff has just missed on a couple more home runs with long foul balls.
“It looks like to me that he’s kind of putting both together. He’s nice and relaxed so far this season, but he’s also getting his A-swing off. That’s fun to watch because that kid has a lot of power.”
The power can be used more frequently if Moroff is looking to hit earlier in the count, rather than looking to just get ahead in the count with the goal of drawing a walk.
“I want him to be ready to hit from pitch one,” Wynegar said. “Don’t be passive or look for that one little pitch in that one little spot. You can handle a bigger area. He’s still going to get his walks and I want to cut his strikeouts down a little. Not so much being over-aggressive, but being ready to hit in certain situations and don’t let the pitchers get ahead. Be ready to hit.”
Moroff has played third base, second base and shortstop this season, making one error at each position. He’s played three games at shortstop and second base, and one at third base. He has the ability to be an average or above-average defender, depending on the position. So, if Moroff can find any consistent offensive production he would be a strong call-up candidate due to his versatility defensively. He could provide a steady glove off the bench, with the ability to play almost anywhere in the infield. If Moroff can sustain the power numbers he’s had so far this season, the likelihood of being promoted only will increase.