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Reasons for optimism about Kendrys Morales

Hear me out.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

It's dark here. It's a bit damp and cold. Given the title of this article and everyone's (writers, analysts, readers, reporters) feelings about the subject matter, I have taken certain...precautions. I managed to use my phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot somehow, so I can bring you this article, but I don't have electricity in this cave.

Almost universally, everyone hates the Kendrys Morales signing. It was noted in the news article that 3 people were defending the signing. It's maybe 3.33333333 now. I'll remind you of the pertinent surface information.

After declining a qualifying offer last year, Morales wasn't picked up until after the draft. That was a miscalculation on his and his agent's part. He got less money, and he was terrible throughout the season. Morales got 401 plate appearances. If you restrict the FanGraphs leaderboard to those position players who received at least 400 plate appearances and look at their fWAR, Morales finds himself at the bottom with -1.7 fWAR. That's a -2.5 fWAR/600 PA. I don't think there was a worse player last year. Maybe Nick Swisher. Swisher has an admirable collection of dress socks. He's got that going for him. Pertinent information, indeed.

Morales had plenty of good offensive seasons before 2014, though. By plenty, I mean 4. I'm going to examine Morales' previous 3 seasons to see what reasons there might be for optimism. Let's get to know Morales' tendencies. I'll show you many of the same graphs you'll see in the upcoming season in review series with each player. You also saw some of these graphs in my Torii Hunter article. I'll show you his K%, BB%, batted ball rates, and production by batted ball type against league average. 100 is league average. Over 100 means Morales did more of the thing, and under 100 means he did less of the thing.

Season K% BB% lgK% lgBB% Rel K Rel BB
2012 22.2% 5.9% 19.8% 8.0% 112 74
2013 17.4% 7.5% 19.9% 7.9% 87 95
2014 17.0% 6.7% 20.4% 7.6% 83 88

His strikeout rate is going down while the rest of the league's is increasing. That's a small reason for optimism. He doesn't walk very much, though. Sounds like a Royal.

Here are Morales' batted ball rate frequencies relative to league average.

Season Rel LD Rel GB Rel FB Rel IFFB Rel HR/FB
2012 98 114 83 76 186
2013 89 109 95 39 138
2014 86 109 97 93 83

Morales hits way too many ground balls for a plodding Billy Butler DH type. At least he is approaching league average fly ball the expense of his line drive rate. More fly balls is good, though, as we'll see a bit later. Despite being a "power" hitter, Morales doesn't pop up too much. That's a reason for optimism. Unfortunately, Morales' HR/FB took a dive in 2014, but he had an almost equal decline from 2012-2013. That's not a reason for optimism. That's a reason for pitchforks.

Also, and I know this was extensively argued in the news article, but maybe the lack of a spring training factored in here somehow. Morales' overall production did not improve much after 2 months of playing, but his HR/FB did improve in the last 2 months. I find it hard to say that the lack of a spring training was at work here, because it doesn't make a lot of sense for one stat (HR/FB) to improve while others (like, all the others) don't, but I'm not entirely ruling it out. Anyway, here's Morales' production by batted ball type.

Season FB Rel PRD LD Rel PRD GB Rel PRD
2012 145 121 89
2013 145 93 98
2014 83 99 76

The line drive and ground ball production numbers are expected, though his 2014 number dipped quite a bit. He's never going to hit better than league average on ground balls without the BABIP fairy dragging him around. Notice the fly ball production, though. Despite the drop in HR/FB from 2012 to 2013, there was no drop in production. He slugged less, but he got on base more in 2013 compared to 2012. Then there was 2014. That's a massive decline. It doesn't make sense. Here's why. Unfortunately, I have to change data sources from FanGraphs to Baseball Savant for this analysis. I'm going to show you the fly ball distance bucket stuff for Morales, which isn't available on FanGraphs. I think this introduces a confounding factor. There could be classification differences between the two sites. However, the data correlate well.

First, here are Morales' fly balls from 2012-2014. A weak fly ball is under 311 feet. A hard fly ball is greater than or equal to 311 feet. PRD is calculated by (1.7*BA+SLG). League average BA/SLG/PRD on hard fly balls from 2012-2014 was .556/1.920/2.865. League average soft/hard frequencies were 71.5%/28.5%.

Bin Count Avg Dist BA SLG PRD Freq
Soft 165 249.7 0.115 0.164 0.360 62.7%
Hard 98 350.4 0.612 2.112 3.152 37.3%

Morales produced better than league average in both categories, and he allocated more fly balls to the hard hit category compared to the league average. Morales can hit the ball really hard in the air. He's not far from Giancarlo Stanton in terms of his allocation frequency, but he does less damage on the hard hit fly balls. Not surprising.

Here is how Morales fared on fly balls from 2012-2013, two seasons during which he had the exact same wRC+ (119) and exact same relative production on fly balls (145).

Bin Count Avg Dist BA SLG PRD Freq
Soft 115 246.7 0.130 0.191 0.412 57.5%
Hard 85 350.5 0.612 2.106 3.146 42.5%

The production and average distance numbers aren't really that different. But, wow, his allocation frequency.

Here is how Morales fared on fly balls in 2014.

Bin Count Avg Dist BA SLG PRD Freq
Soft 50 256.6 0.080 0.100 0.236 79.4%
Hard 13 349.9 0.615 2.154 3.199 20.6%

Agony. Misery. Morales' production and average distance on the hard hit fly balls was actually about the same, but his allocation frequency was closer to Elvis Andrus than Giancarlo Stanton. This is the reason for the massive drop in fly ball production. Just like his 2012-2013 numbers were probably too good, these numbers are way too poor.

Here is how Morales fared on fly balls in 2008-2010 before the leg injury. Baseball Savant doesn't go back beyond 2008.

Bin Count Avg Dist BA SLG PRD Freq
Soft 133 252.4 0.113 0.150 0.342 59.1%
Hard 92 350.1 0.696 2.380 3.563 40.9%

The production numbers of his hard hit fly balls were lower in 2012-2013, but his allocation frequency was very similar to 2012-2013.

I can see some decline (outside the obvious aging thing). The fly ball production numbers now are lower than they were before the leg injury. However, the allocation frequency was so good and so stable from 2008-2013 that 2014 seems to me a ridiculous outlier. This is a reason for optimism. I don't expect a hard hit fly ball percentage above 40%, since he's now 31. Expecting that 63/37 split is not crazy, though, and his production on fly balls is better than Billy Butler's.

So, here's the summary using Billy Butler as a comparison for context. Overall, the Royals traded on base skills for power. Morales strikes out a bit more and walks a bit less, but he is a better ball striker. They both hit too many ground balls and can't get league average production out of them due to their plodding nature. Butler hits more line drives; Morales hits more fly balls. Morales is probably not a shift candidate from the left side (2.8 GB pull ratio 2012-2014), but he might be from the right side (4.0 GB pull ratio 2012-2014). Per Steamer, Butler is projected for a 119 wRC+, and Morales is projected for a 109 wRC+. Without some serious luck, I don't see a wRC+ approaching his 2009 and 2010 levels (136 and 128 wRC+, respectively), but I can see Morales getting back to a 119 wRC+ (2012 and 2013). I see too much small sample random variation in his fly ball production, and even a little too much variation in his ground ball production, in 2014 and not enough decline. A 109 wRC+ projected value might be a tad low for a baseline expectation.

Was the money too much? Maybe. In hindsight, I'd rather have Butler's option than 2 years of Morales. Butler is a rebound candidate himself in some of the same ways that Morales is. Butler has a higher floor. Morales MAY have a higher ceiling if his HR/FB goes back to career levels. In a different stage of hindsight, in which Butler is gone, I'd rather have gone with the DH by committee or some sort of set platoon of cheaper guys on 1 year deals. John Mayberry, Jr. comes to mind.

Morales is here, though. It has a chance to be not terrible. Not a glowing endorsement, but things can always get worse, right? I hope I gave you enough reasons for optimism that your torches and pitchforks have been downgraded to discontented shouting and grumbling. I'd like to leave the cave.