When Kendrys Morales had a big rebound season last year after a horrid 2014 campaign, many expected Morales to continue being a competent hitter this year. Now, Morales' 2015 season was the second-best of his career in terms of offense, so there would be no blame sent around the campfire if you expected him to be a little worse.
Not this much worse.
In 199 plate appearances this year, Morales has hit roughly like an OK version of Tony Pena, Jr. with just a little bit more power. Tony Pena Jr. is now a pitcher in the Mexican leagues (and doing a fine job of it). Morales is still swinging a bat as a designated hitter. He has to be better.
To put some concrete numbers on it, Morales is currently hitting .201 / .271 / .335 for a 64 wRC+, which means he's hitting 36 percent below league average. Among 179 currently qualified hitters, Morales ranks ninth worst.
There appear to be a couple things going on that might help explain why Morales has hit so poorly. There's one external factor and one internal.
Having recognized a strong season, pitchers have decided to throw Morales fewer fastballs. His percentage of fastballs seen (according to Brooks Baseball) has decreased from 54.4 percent to 52.2 percent. His percentage of offspeed stuff seen has declined a little bit more. Using the process of elimination, that means Morales has seen quite a few more breaking balls -- from 21.8 percent last year to 28.4 percent this year.
For his entire career, Morales has never seen so few fastballs and so many breaking balls. Interestingly, Morales for his career has gotten better results against breaking stuff than against offspeed stuff. This year, Morales has not been especially good against any pitch type, but sliders in particular are destroying him. He's swinging less at breaking stuff, less than ever, but he's whiffing more like his 2012-2014 self rather than his 2015 self. When he's put breaking stuff in play, particularly the slider, it's just not good contact.
Therefore, the external factor is that he's seeing more pitches with which he has a difficult time producing anything worthwhile, and he's doing much worse against those pitches than usual.
For the second factor, the internal one, remember that Morales is a switch-hitter. His offensive production often has to be evaluated by pitcher handedness. There is a stark contrast this year -- Morales against left-handed pitching is trucking along just fine. In fact, his current .327 / .382 / .469 line against lefties would be the best of his career. He's striking out more than usual, but he's been putting a charge in the ball when he's hit right-handed.
Unfortunately, hitting against lefties accounts for only about 28 percent of his total plate appearances, which means that his performance against right-handed pitching has been nothing short of a dumpster fire. In 144 plate appearances against RHP, Morales has hit .154 / .229 / .285. THAT'S Tony Pena Jr. production without any defense to make up for it.
In order to figure out what's going on here, I looked to Statcast data. Data on batted ball velocities are still somewhat incomplete, but they are not nearly as bad as they were last year. Much of last year's missing data, as I understand it, have been backfilled as well.
First, looking at non-Statcast data by batted ball type in order to isolate something for Statcast to be useful, Morales' fly balls seemed to be the primary target for analysis. His rate of line drives is down, and all of those missing line drives have become fly balls. Morales is producing less on grounders than usual, so that's part of it - he's hitting into the shift more. He is also producing worse on line drives than last year, but those constitute only 23 batted balls. Fly balls are where it's at.
After slashing .319 / .313 / .869 last year on fly balls, much closer to his pre-2014 production, Morales has cratered to a .255 / .246 / .673 line this year, much closer to 2014 than his productive years. Morales' poor production here seems to be related to his rate of pulling fly balls, which has dropped to 10.5 percent.
Unfortunately, I can't split those data by handedness on FanGraphs, so that's why I went to Statcast. Using the hit location data, which records the position to which a batted ball went, it's evident that Morales' drop in pulling fly balls is coming entirely from when he bats left-handed. His rate of fly balls to right field was at 23.4 percent last year, and it's at 10 percent this year.
Shown visually, the circle on the chart below highlights where Morales has no pulled fly balls.
Here's 2015 for comparison's sake.
Not only is there more pulled stuff in the circled area, but there's more pulled stuff in right-center as well.
Continuing further into Statcast data, this does not seem to be injury related. I would expect, if this were injury related, that his batted ball velocity would be down. That is absolutely not the case. As a left-handed hitter, his average launching angle on fly balls is a little bit down, which means fewer rainbow-type fly balls. His batted ball velocity on fly balls is way up, from about 85.9 mph to 96.4 mph.
Morales is still putting a charge into the ball when he puts it into play, but those balls have simply gone to places where they won't go over the fence or are more easily caught.
The fix here is not immediately apparent. For the external factor, Morales can do nothing about what pitches he sees except lay off the extra breaking balls.
For the internal factor, it could be a timing issue. I would guess a potential root cause is that Morales is just not turning around on fastballs to pull them. It's also possible that because he's seeing fewer fastballs, it is a bit harder for him to gear up to pull one out; he has to prepare for the breaking ball.
I really don't have much to offer here in terms of a fix except for this: We're still talking about a small sample size. The 2016 Statcast recorded fly balls with Morales hitting as a lefty numbers 30 when I gathered the data. There were 77 last year. We're talking about a small portion of Morales' overall production. If there's actually nothing wrong with Morales, there's time for it all to stabilize or swing wildly in the other, positive direction.
If there is actually something wrong with his timing or mechanics, they've gotta figure it out.