Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Justin Morneau: A Student of the Game

Has any player on the Twins shown as much ability to adjust and improve over the years as Justin Morneau?

Despite missing the final weeks of the 2009 season with a back injury and proceeding to struggle through spring training this year, Morneau is currently playing the best baseball of his career. He's been the American League's best hitter up to this point, with league-leading figures in the AVG, OBP and SLG columns to go along with 11 home runs and 34 RBI, which are also top-five figures.

The gargantuan offensive numbers have largely been buoyed by a dramatically increased walk rate. Morneau's 35 walks tie him with Kevin Youkilis for most in baseball. Morneau has never ranked among even the top ten in the American League in bases on balls before, so this qualifies as a monumental step forward. Still, the signs have been in place for some time. Check out his walk rates in each year since he debuted in the majors:

2003: 7.8%
2004: 9.0%
2005: 8.1%
2006: 8.0%
2007: 9.6%
2008: 10.7%
2009: 12.2%
2010: 18.5%

It helps that opposing pitchers have increasingly sought to pitch around him over the years as they've come to view him as more and more of an imposing threat, but Morneau has clearly made enormous strides with his pitch recognition. While it might not seem too extraordinary for a player to improve his walk rate as he grows more and more accustomed to playing in the majors, many sluggers never improve on their K/BB ratio -- look at Ryan Howard, for instance. For Morneau to go from a guy who was striking out more than twice as often he walked -- as he did in his first full season of 2005 -- to putting up an even ratio like he has now is very impressive and speaks well to his ability to make adjustments.

Along with his consistently improving plate discipline, Morneau has also continually taken steps forward on the defensive side. A natural catcher, Morneau often looked awkward in his early days at first base but he's turned into a legitimate asset at first base.

The numbers help bear that out, as Morneau leads all major-league first basemen by a wide margin with a 4.5 UZR (the next closest guy is Adam LaRoche, at 2.8) and is on pace for his best season ever in that category. But you can also see it just from watching Morneau. He's become an increasingly smart player, always throwing to get the lead runner rather than simply stepping on first when the ball is hit at him. His range on pop-ups in foul territory seems to have gotten better with each passing year. And one element of his game that has always been a strength continues to impress: his ability to reach for errant throws and stab short hops that bounce in front of him at first. I'm thinking that has something to do with his extensive experience as a hockey goalie.

That Morneau has been a great hitter and hugely valuable player thus far is nothing new, but the 29-year-old is taking his game to all-new levels this year and proving that he's been working hard to improve in areas that might have once been considered weaknesses.

Now, one historical hurdle remains. Morneau has to keep it up through the second half and especially during the final months of the season.


Marv said...

Morneau has certainly been impressive. Who, anywhere, would have expected him to be hitting like he is right now? Awesome.
Especially impressive is the .383/.497/.701 given he has had Kubel and Cuddyer hitting behind him. No one is fearing Cuddyer right now and Kubel has been a non-factor this season except for one big swing in the Yankee series.
Very impressive. Nice article, Nick. Thank you

Anonymous said...

walking him to set up a GDIP by cuddyer.

Andrew said...

Great post! The problem is Morneau is gonna start swinging at anything because the batters behind him are not bringing him home.

Dave said...

I took Morneau in every fantasy league this year because he was so underrated. I just hope his back stays healthy.

One of the aspects of his game that goes without notice by many is that he rakes lefties just about as well as righties. Well, if you take out 2007... What a luxury to have a power hitting lefty that is largly imune to splits.

Nick N. said...

One of the aspects of his game that goes without notice by many is that he rakes lefties just about as well as righties. Well, if you take out 2007... What a luxury to have a power hitting lefty that is largly imune to splits.

Great point. That's big in a lineup that features as many left-handed hitters as the Twins.

Jacob said...

Statistically the best defensive 1st baseman and best offensive player in the league, both by massive margins.

Yeah with some luck he can be an alternate at the All-Star game to whoever the Yankees or Red Sox are sporting this year!

Jacob said...

I think we should move Cuddyer into the 1 hole and bump everyone else back a spot. This way Cuddy can only make one out per at bat. Seriously like 20% of the time Morneau is on 1st for Cuddy he gets dp'd off.

Chris Thompson said...

Morneau should have been getting this kind of BB rate far sooner. He had Mauer, the best "eye" in baseball to learn from so I'm not surprised that Morneau has picked up on this. I am more surprised that it has taken him this long to learn from the best in baseball

Mitch said...

Don't be ridiculous, Chris. Watching someone excel at a difficult-to-acquire skill is completely different from doing it yourself. It's not like plate discipline is a mysterious new concept that big league hitters have yet to hear about, let alone embrace. I assure you hitters with low OBP aren't playing that way because it hasn't dawned on them to take a pitch or two (Well I guess with the exception of Delmon Young, that is. That guy steps up to bat like he's paid by the swing).

Anonymous said...

yeah, just look at the mariners since ichiro came. now everyone is swinging like him. or not.