Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Morneau's Mysterious Legacy

Justin Morneau, at the age of 27 and with four-and-a-half major-league seasons under his belt, has made quite a career for himself already. He has won two Silver Slugger awards. He’s been to two All-Star games. He has won one MVP award and finished second another time.

All the while, Morneau has posted a .281/.348/.498 hitting line at a premier offensive position. He’s never hit more than 34 home runs in a season, never slugged .600, never led the league in OPS (or been particularly close). His top comparison on BaseballReference.com is Brad Fullmer. Strictly from a statistical standpoint, Morneau has not been an overwhelmingly impressive player up to this point in his career.

Yet, clearly his reputation precedes him. Morneau has already collected some impressive hardware, has had opposing managers marvel at his skill (Ozzie Guillen last year called him the most dangerous hitter in the league) and has managed to earn himself the largest contract in Twins franchise history.

So just what is it about Morneau that causes his perceived value to be so much higher than the numbers we see on the stat sheet? I started wondering about this yesterday, and it was prompted by an entry on Joe Posnanski’s blog in which he expressed great confusion over why Morneau was considered to be so much more valuable than Joe Mauer by MVP voters, both this year and in 2006. Says Poz:
The part that baffled me in 2006 was that NONE of the voters agreed with me. Every single one of them picked Morneau over Mauer in their voting, every last one of them, and the Minnesota guys were pretty pointed in telling me that Morneau was much more valuable to that team even though, best I could tell, Mauer was a better hitter, a billion times more important fielder, a better base runner and apparently more feared around the game based on his 21 intentional walks (to Morneau’s nine). I was told that I was wrong so many times than finally I simply accepted it — obviously there was some greatness about Morneau that I was not appreciating properly and some flaws about Mauer that I was overlooking.

You know what? I watched them pretty closely in 2008, though, and … I think I was right the first time.
What is this “greatness” about Morneau? Is it something so simple as a flair for the theatrics? Morneau does have a reputation for delivering huge hits at crucial moments. Is it the tremendous hitting with runners in scoring position? Possibly, but Mauer was excellent in such situations this year and was actually markedly better in 2006 (though Morneau’s numbers always stand out more since he hits with far more runners in scoring position).

I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about watching Morneau play regularly that brings you to appreciate his game on a different level. I must admit that I’ve gotten swept up in this myself. Late in the season, Morneau was right at the top of my list of MVP contenders; now, looking back, I can’t really understand why. Even without the late-season slump, Morneau’s performance – while good – just didn’t stack up to many of his peers. When I threw together a quick-and-dirty MVP ballot in the comments section from Friday’s post, I ranked Morneau sixth, and I’ll stand by that.

What I think this comes down to is an aura built around Morneau’s reputation. It’s clear that people in the game and around the game have a lot of respect for him, and I’m sure that shades opinions of the writers who fill out MVP ballots. There’s also something to be said for having a flashy style – a big day for Morneau might be 2-for-5 with four RBI and a highlight-reel go-ahead homer in the late innings; a big day for Mauer might be 4-for-4 with two doubles, three runs scored and a walk. Mauer’s contributions may have been more valuable on a basic level, but Morneau’s stick in your memory long after you’ve watched the game.

Of course, I might just be grasping for straws here. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what it is about Morneau that makes his reputation outshine his actual on-the-field performance. But I’m open to suggestions. Thoughts?

23 comments:

lookatthosetwins said...

Well there's a lot of parts to it. One of them is that people like slugging more than on base %. I don't mean the actual stats, I mean that people like guys who hit lots of home runs and doubles. Also, Morneau playing every day really helps his RBI and HR totals.

Another thing I think about is how, like you said, Morneau has a reputation for picking up big hits. Mauer, on the other hand, generally has better stats in clutch situations, but doesn't get the credit. I think it comes down to the fact that people value positive contributions way more than they devalue negative ones. While mauer has a penchant for not making outs in clutch situations, Morneau picks up bigger hits, but makes more outs. People remember the big hit that Morneau got, but not the 9 pitch walk that set it up from Mauer. I specifically remember quite a few times seeing Mauer have a great at bat and Morneau coming up hacking and striking out or hitting a weak grounder. But people don't remember that. Ok well I've been repeating myself for a while now, so I'll quit now.

Beau said...

When a team that is not supposed to sniff the playoffs has a great year, they capture the attention of the media. In 06 and 08 it's easy to see why MVP voters would go looking at the Twins for players to reward. But I don't know why, other than RBI totals, Morneau so outshines him in reputation.

Perhaps expectations are too high for catchers these days. A catcher hasn't won MVP since Thurman Munson, and I am guessing that until Mauer hits 20-25 homers, he's going to get the Baby Jesus treatment from most of the country.

Anonymous said...

RBI. That's all it's about.

You start to count the RBI for the rest of the team and you say to yourself, wow without those runs driven in my Morneau, where would the Twins be?

Now, Morneau is getting more opportunity than say most 4-hole hitters (2nd) but that is in large part due to the 3 hole hitter being a guy who doesn't rack up extra base hits (clearing the bases) and get's on base at an outstanding clip.

Is Mauer the better player? I think most would argue yes... but absent Morneau's bat this team goes no where.

Anonymous said...

Or if you think about an end of game situation where you have to face Mauer with no one on and what you are hoping is that Mauer sets the table by getting on, not that he ends it.

Morneau is END IT baby!

Mauer's contributions altough great aren't capable of carrying a team because he needs someone else to drive in the runs.

Morneau's sucess is no where near replicable absent Mauer batting in front but there will always be recognition for the guy drives in the runs

SethSpeaks said...

Well put Anonymouns... a comment like that is something you should be proud to attach your name to.

Ask Morneau's teammates who is more valuable... every one of them will say Morneau. Cuddyer said that again on XM the other day. They all 'know' it. Ask players on other teams. They'll say Morneau.

I don't understand people's need to bash a great player in Morneau just because he's a first baseman. Yes, his numbers in '04, '05 and '07 weren't terrific, but he was pretty good in 2006 and he was very good in 2008. The Twins weren't expected to contend, and they did, and he's the one that puts up numbers.

Catchers are hurt by the fact that they don't play every day. Is that fair, maybe not, but then again, maybe it is.

both have strong arguments for value. Mauer's all about on-base percentage. Morneau's more about the slugging percentage. But Morneau isn't just a home run hitter. Didn't he set the record for doubles in a season by a Twins player this year? He became more valuable when he would take two-strike pitches and dump them into left field with runners on 2nd and 3rd to drive in two runs.

Stats people don't care about the RBI, and I think it can be an overrated stat. It is dependent upon people being on in front of a hitter. But then again, someone has to drive them in. You have to score runs. Sometimes a sac fly is great. Sometimes putting the ball in play and grounding out to 2B is alright. A hit or a homer would be better, but you take the runs.

I have said that by the end of the year, I would have voted for Mauer too. But all this anti-Morneau sentiment is more than a little disturbing. It's like we're expected to pick one over the other rather than just being happy that the Twins had two guys that were deemed VERY valuable.

If it's just about certain stats, then maybe Evan Grant was right.

Russ said...

He doesn't have sideburns.

Ben said...

I don't know, I think Mauer gets plenty of respect. To the point where people start to complain about overhyping "baby jesus".

Anonymous said...

To Mr Beau,

Munson wasn't the last, Pudge & I-Rod won the AL MVP in 1999 and it wasn't because he was the DH in one game.

Nick N. said...

Lots of great comments today. I have a few thoughts...

Is Mauer the better player? I think most would argue yes... but absent Morneau's bat this team goes no where.

But if you replace Morneau with, say, Kevin Youkilis, aren't the Twins still OK? Or with Miguel Cabrera? Or Aubrey Huff? What AL catcher could replace Mauer and provide anything close to his production?

Context is extremely important, and cannot be ignored. On its own, Morneau's production is very nice (though still not elite), but there are plenty of first basemen out there who can slug and drive in runs.

Mauer's contributions altough great aren't capable of carrying a team because he needs someone else to drive in the runs.

Well, that's not entirely true. Mauer did hit .362 with RISP and drove in 85 runs. But, yes, Morneau is the guy who can consistently clear the bases with big hits. That's the job of a traditional first baseman and cleanup hitter, and Morneau does it well. But does he do it significantly better than everyone else in the league in that role? I don't think so.

Morneau had a huge RBI total, but he came to the plate with far more runners on base than any other hitter in the league this year. And that has a LOT to do with Mauer hitting in front of him. People are viewing this situation too flatly, in my opinion, with the general sentiment being, "Well if the Twins didn't have Morneau to drive Mauer in, they'd be nowhere." By that same token, if they didn't have Mauer to get on base and move runners into scoring position in front of him, Morneau's not nearly the player he is and this offense is far worse.

I don't understand people's need to bash a great player in Morneau just because he's a first baseman.

I'm not bashing Morneau; I've repeatedly said that he's a great player. I don't think ranking someone sixth on an MVP ballot is a slight. But, as I've explained above, his contributions simply aren't unique for his position.

He doesn't have sideburns.

I think we might have our answer.

Ken said...

Morneau's contributions may not be unique for his position, but it is unique for the Twins.

This is an organization that went through the steriod era without a 30 home run player. Morneau is the only Twins power hitter, which increases his value to the lineup.

Nick N. said...

This is an organization that went through the steriod era without a 30 home run player. Morneau is the only Twins power hitter, which increases his value to the lineup.

Jason Kubel hit three fewer home runs this year. It's true that Morneau is the team's best power hitter, but he's not their only power hitter.

And when was the last time the Twins had a player post a .413 on-base percentage in a full season? When was the last time they had a catcher win a Gold Glove? When was the last time they had a player win a batting title?

Mauer's contributions are pretty unique to this organization too, but there's such a fixation on home runs and RBI that they tend to get overlooked.

I do think you might be on to something here, though, with regards to my question. Twins fans have gone so long without seeing an even moderately successful power hitter and run producer at a power position that when one comes along, they perhaps tend to overinflate his value. We've seen plenty of guys come through here who can hit for average and work the count (albeit not to Mauer's extent) but guys who can hit 30 homers or drive in 100 runs have been more rare.

Still, while these things might make Morneau SEEM more valuable to some than he truly is, I don't believe they actually make him more valuable. This organization's astonishing inability to uncover power hitters over the past decade doesn't make the one that finally comes along more valuable than other guys out there who are better hitters.

Anonymous said...

I think that the reason Mauer is getting so much hype on this blog is because he is a Minny boy. He is with out a doubt one of the best catcher's in baseball, but he has protection. He has either Justin, or Michael then Justin hitting behind him, and thus sees better pitches to hit. Who did Justin have hitting behind him? Jason Kubel. I would probably provide more protection. The reason Justin gets the attention is because he had 40 more RBI's than any other twin without Torri Hunter protecting him. Also, his fielding percentage was .997, gold glove caliber, and he is a converted first baseman. Rather than ponder why he gets more attention than you beloved hometown Joe, be thankful that you have two of the best young players in the game signed long term, and don't question who's better. Without Justin you'd have been ten or fifteen games back, and Joe would have hit 20-30 points lower.

Anonymous said...

Mauer is like DB who never gets an interception because he shuts down his side of the field and the QB wont go there....Morneau is the less talented guy who gets all the picks because the QB has to throw it somewhere

Beau said...

Joe gets better pitches to hit because he has Justin behind him? If that's true, why does he walk so much? Because pitchers are throwing meatballs down the middle?

Anonymous said...

You know, Mauer would have more RBI than Morneau had he be batting behind him in the Cleanup Spot...

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, JM's reputation as a stand-up guy is deeply seeded, at least around here, where his Canadian Roots flourish. The guy is frequently spending time with the kids from his old junior ball team and the community that surrounds it. I hear that he's similarly active and well-liked in 'sota.

I don't think that makes him an MVP, but it certainly builds a lot of goodwill that works towards it.

Curveball said...

Morneau needs to be consistent and with the current state of the roster, shall be. Remember, he batted fifth a lot oin the past (the dreaded right-left-right-left formula). Batting clean-up is ideal for him, but he needs a feared #5 hitter. Young is not. Kubel kinda works, as might Cuddyer. Of course, was he better served by Hunter batting sixth behind him? For ocen, Justin has a good group hitting in front of him. Span, casilla and Mauer all have a chance to put 1-2 runners on base. The question is -- will a double suffice or in a home run better?

He wasn't the MVP in 2008, sad to say. Josh Hamilton ahd an overall better season than Justin, just like Josh DID win the home-run hitting contest, except when you looked at it with colored glasses.

Joe Mauer is one of those unique players, like a Paul Molitor for example. The downfall is that he catches...which could limit his games each year (and at bats) or career to 10-12 years, unless he pulls into an infield role, or DH. If he played 1st or 3rd or DH, his numbers would be far from the best for such positions. At catcher, he shines, with his additional defense.

Was Justin much different in 2008 than, say, Doug Mientkiewicz in 2001, when Dougie hit .306 and had 39 doubles and 15 homers, although he didn't get the RBI?

I like Justin. If he ramins consistent for the next 4 seasons, as everyone else, and a decent #5 (and 6th) guy can be held, the Twins might show some more power. But if they stick with the speed of Span, Gomez and casilla, they need more punch from a SS and 3B than they have had in the past, and probably from both positions, assuming Young can hit a few more homers. Maybe Cuddyer at 3rd isn't all that bad of a thought?

Anonymous said...

what's up with no discussion about defense whenever a MVP debates come up? Morneau is a good defensive 1B but Mauer is one of top defensive catchers in the league and managed a very inexperienced starting rotation into way more wins than anyone expected.
Being a catcher takes so much more mental and physical skill than any other position defensively, and to be a dominant one, like Mauer, should be considered in his value to a team.

Dome Field Advantage- Check out the site said...

Morneau is one of the premier run producers in the leagues and he isn't famous for knocking liners over the baggy in right. He's famous for bases clearing doubles, clutch AB's, and an occasional bomb. He's not known for padding the stats, he's known for hitting when it counts, and that's why he's already a legend.

BradDad said...

Chicks dig the long ball.

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