Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Morneau is Cleaning Up

I'll be honest, I was a little worried about Justin Morneau this spring. He'd struggled through the latter portion of the 2009 campaign due to a back injury which ultimately forced him to watch the final weeks of the regular season (and the Twins' playoff series against the Yankees) from the bench. Rather than medical treatment for his fractured vertebrae, Morneau was told by doctors to simply rest and let the ailment heal on its own. We've seen this approach fail plenty of times in the past. Morneau also underwent wrist surgery during the offseason.

Spring training did little to alleviate my fears that Morneau may experience some after effects from the injuries that ruined the end of his 2009 season. He hit just .160 in Grapefruit League play, striking out 10 times while drawing only three walks. Morneau's worst season as a big-leaguer up to this point had come in 2005, after an offseason filled with various health issues, and there was legitimate reason to worry that he might be headed for a down year in 2010.

Thus far, Morneau has thoroughly squashed any such concerns. He left last night's game with a strained back, which is somewhat alarming, but the Twins insisted that his removal was strictly precautionary and that he will be fine. Hopefully that's true, because up to this point he's been an absolute monster amidst the Twins' lineup, batting .352 through his first 20 games while getting on base literally almost half the time and providing solid power with four homers, five doubles and a triple. The fast start is nothing new for Morneau, who is a career .298/.375/.540 hitter in the month of April, but he's doing things this year that we've never seen from him before.

Most intriguing has been Morneau's extremely impressive plate discipline; early in his MLB career, he would generally strike out about twice as often as he walked, which is fairly normal for a power hitter of his ilk. In recent years, he's seen that ratio draw closer to even, but in this young season he has already drawn 20 walks while fanning only 14 times (three of those coming last night). That's the type of K/BB ratio that would make even Joe Mauer jealous. Morneau has definitely been more discerning at the plate, as he is swinging at only 40.7 percent of total pitches offered, down significantly from his career rate of 49.7 percent. That includes a chase rate (swings at pitches out of the zone) of 25.4 percent, down from 29.4 for his career. It seems that Morneau is clearly benefiting from the overall improvement in the Twins' lineup -- pitchers are less inclined to throw him strikes and he's taking advantage by laying off more pitches. If this trend can continue it will be a huge boost for the offense, since Morneau (and others) constantly being on base is a big part of the reason the Twins have scored so many runs despite struggling to come up with big hits in scoring opportunities.

The early success of the Twins' first baseman looms especially large in light of the contract Ryan Howard signed with the Phillies on Monday. The five-year, $125 million extension will pay Howard an annual salary even higher than Mauer, and easily shatters the six-year, $80 million deal that Morneau signed prior to the 2008 season.

There's no denying Howard's amazing productivity when it comes to home runs and RBI, but it seems that those two categories are the sole basis for his towering contract. Going back to 2006, when both he and Morneau were named MVP of their respective leagues, Howard has amassed a hitting line of .277/.376/.584 while Morneau has turned in a .294/.369/.520. Now, Howard does have a significant edge in runs batted in (588 to 485) and homers (201 to 122) during that span, but the former is partially explainable by the fact that Howard has generally been playing in better lineups and given more opportunities to drive in runs, while the latter is partially offset by Howard's being far more prone to strike out (he's fanned 780 times compared to just 366 for Morneau). Sure, Howard's homers are nice, but do they make him worth almost $12 million more per season than Morneau?

Aside from their numbers not being all that different, there are other factors that make Morneau look like an enormous bargain in light of Howard's new deal. Chief among them is the age difference between the two players. When Morneau signed his six-year extension with the Twins, he was just 26 years old and clearly amidst his prime. Howard is 30 -- a year and a half older than Morneau is even now, two years into his deal. When you account for the fact that Howard seems unlikely to age well given his body type and historical comparables, it's easy to see which team is going to be feeling better about their first baseman's current contract in a couple years.

Even if Morneau doesn't continue to get on base at a .500 clip.

10 comments:

OneTwo said...

Do the Royals strike you as dangerous? From the games I have watched they seem like they are on the cusp of being the Twins have to contend with.

Nick N. said...

... That a joke?

Jacob said...

No Nick, I just think you guys have different definitions of the word "cusp", that's all.

The Royals have some solid players. But they really don't play baseball all that well. For all the stats talk these days I think most people can just watch them play two or three games and realize that they just don't play very good.

Jesse said...

The Royals are definitely NOT dangerous. It's easy to get lulled into that mentality when you watch one game, or one series. It can sometimes be difficult, when looking at a small sample, to get an accurate reading on how things really are.

As the season moves along, the disparity between teams that go 6-4 as opposed to 4-6 over ten-game stretches will start to show. It's not much of a difference in a small sample, but over the course of a season it shows. And it will show for the Royals again this year.

Jacob was right. The Royals have some solid players, but there are just way too many holes for them to compete with a team like the Twins.

JimCrikket said...

While Twins fans may be feeling better about Morneau's contract than Phillies fans are about Howard's a couple of years from now, we'll also likely be facing the inevitbable loss of Morneau to free agency as his contract winds down. Between Howard's deal and those coming up soon for Gonzales and Fielder, the "market price" for first basemen is going to skyrocket and it's hard to imagine the Twins shelling out Mauer-like money for the "other" M.

Josh said...

True, the Twins may not be able to afford to sign Morneau to another contract, but thankfully he's got 3 more years after this one on the one he has now. Would I want him to stay? Sure. But the key to keeping the Twins a competitive ballclub long term is locking up their best players during their peak years and not overpaying during the decline phases.

Howard's deal is a bad one, overpaying for RBIs. They gave him Pujols-type money for a lesser player.

Qob said...

The royals suffer from the curse of great potential... They show flashes, and have some very good pitching, but they are mostly harmless.

James said...

Courtesy of ESPN.com

It might be safe to say Justin Morneau's back is fully healed. He's among the league leaders in most offensive categories and has already drawn 20 walks, leading to a robust .511 on-base percentage. (Nick Nelson, Nick's Twins Blog)

Were you born a doctor or is that something you picked up along the way?

Travis said...

James - Those power rankings that you're referring to came out on Monday. Justin had no issues with his back on Monday. He first showed signs of back issues on Tuesday. It's called a timeline. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

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