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.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).
You know what? I watched them pretty closely in 2008, though, and … I think I was right the first time.
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?