INDIANAPOLIS – Swinging at the first pitch seems like a simple idea, but not if trying to break years of habit doing the opposite. Max Moroff has never lacked patience at the plate. So much, that it has often been one of the knocks against the utility infielder.
He simply took too many pitches. Sure, he’d get his walks — leading the International League with 90 last season — but those came at the expense of bypassing hittable pitches.
Not this season.
Moroff has 13 home runs, tied for most in the International League. His previous high for home runs at any level of professional baseball was eight. He’s averaging a home run every 14.4 plate appearances this season with Indianapolis. Moroff’s previous season-high was eight home runs, accomplished twice — last season with Indianapolis and with West Virginia in 2013, when he averaged a home run about every 63 to 65 plate appearances.
Indianapolis hitting coach Butch Wynegar had a simple, two-pronged message for Moroff this offseason: expand the zone of what he considers hittable pitches, and don’t be afraid to swing early in the at-bat.
“It’s time to take a risk,” Wynegar said. “You’ll never know if you can hit those pitches unless you take a shot at them. It’s taken a little while, but he’s starting to understand it now. That’s a big part of his success.”
Moroff has hit four home runs on the first pitch of his at-bat this season, and another one on a 1-0 count. Those are swings Moroff would not have taken in previous seasons. He would instead have been looking to take pitches to get ahead in the count.
And just because Moroff has shown success this season hitting early in the count, that doesn’t mean he’s completely free of old habits. They just don’t disappear that quickly.
“It’s still tough because the past five seasons I’ve played, I probably didn’t swing 95 percent of the time at first pitch unless there were runners in scoring position and then I was ready,” Moroff said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s still tough for me to be ready on that first pitch, instead of seeing one and say, ‘OK, I’ve got my timing down.’ Instead being ready to hit the first pitch, get my timing down and let it go.”
Moroff has hit seven of his home runs when he’s ahead in the count, and four home runs — including those three on the first pitch — when the count has been even.
Breaking those habits is made easier after a year in Triple-A and by making his major league debut last season, playing six games with the Pirates over the past two seasons.
“So, he’s not afraid to try to a little more,” Indianapolis manager Andy Barkett said. “I just think he’s getting his A-swing off. I think last year he took a lot of pitches in hitter’s count and this year I think he’s looking to fire on them a little bit more. I think he knows he has some power and can get his A-swing off.”
Moroff has a pair of multi-home run games this season, hitting one from both sides of the plate in each of those games.
“I’m being a little more aggressive early on,” Moroff said. “I’m more relaxed. I’m just ready to hit. I’m on time and ready to hit. They just happen. I’m not trying to hit them out, I’m just hitting them on the barrel.”
In the offseason, Moroff and Wynegar worked together six or seven times. Aside from discussing approach at the plate, the two worked on Moroff’s stride which may be another reason for his power increase.
“Lengthening the stride out and getting stronger in his lower half,” Wynegar said. “If anything, that might be the secret to him right now. He’s just getting a little bit leverage with his lower half and that’s allowed his upper half to get through the ball and his hands to get through the ball a lot easier. He’s done a great job of making hard contact and the balls are going out of the park.”
So, what type of hitter is Moroff becoming or should try to become? He doesn’t have a towering frame, standing 5-feet-10, but is a sturdy player. The power potential is there but don’t expect Moroff to be a perennial league leader in home runs.
“He’ll fool you with the eye test on how much power he actually does have,” Barkett said. “You don’t realize this kid has big time power from both sides of the plate because he just doesn’t look like it. But he does. He has 20-home run potential in the big leagues. Our goal is to get him to use his hand-eye coordination in the strike zone early to put himself in the best count that he can, and let his natural ability take control.”
Moroff has always battled the “too selective” label as a hitter. Now, he’s become a legitimate threat at the plate. He’s not looking to become a home run hitter, but a gap hitter who will hit home runs. Moroff will be joining the Pirates this weekend in New York, getting his second look in the big leagues this season. This one could be a longer look, and if Moroff can carry his power over to the majors, he could be up for good.