When the Mariners traded for Kendrys Morales last week, they acquired a hitter in the midst of a season long struggle. It’s easy to pin the Cuban’s poor numbers on a late start after he voluntarily sat out the first half of the season: after missing all of spring training and more than two months of the regular season, he was plugged into Minnesota’s lineup a day after putting pen to paper. Perhaps not surprisingly he hit just .217/.246/.306 for the Twins, good for a 49 wRC+. Despite the lousy start, analysts were generally bullish that Morales would return to form with more repetitions, while the Mariners brass and fans alike eagerly awaited a hot re-birth in Seattle.
Needless to say, that hasn’t happened so far. In his first seven games in a Mariners uniform, Morales batted .115/.172/.192 while striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances. Everyone would concede that he has nowhere to go but up from here, but after forty-five games, some are wondering whether the Mariners will ever see the 2013 version of Morales.
This is a rare situation. Most players who don’t play their first game until June sat out because they were sidelined with an injury; Morales was effectively driven off the market by an unfavorable labor agreement. Unlike players who were hurt, Morales didn’t ease back into the big leagues by rehabbing or playing several minor league games either. He trained in Florida, but it’s hard to argue that working out and taking batting practice can adequately prepare a player for mid-season major league pitching.
Perhaps it’s telling that Stephen Drew, who also missed significant time for the same reason, is off to a horrible start as well. Given that both players are thirty-one and too young for complete age-related collapse, it seems reasonable to pin Morales’s cold start on his extended absence. From there, it gets tricky.
While common sense suggests that Morales will find his swing as the season progresses, it’s hard to estimate how many plate appearances he’ll need before he’s “back to normal.” He’s now batted nearly 200 times and it’s quite possible that he won’t ever get on track in 2014. A switch hitter, Morales might also take longer to get in a groove than other players who only need repetitions from one side of the plate.
There are, however two reasons for optimism. First, Morales doesn’t exactly have to hit like Edgar Martinez to make an impression in the lineup. As a team, Mariners DH’s have posted a wRC+ of 56: they’ve hit .194 with just eighteen extra base hits all season. Not only is that the worst mark among American League teams – Kansas City’s DH’s are second to last with 76 wRC+, which is still terrible – it’s worse than the production any AL team is getting from their catcher and shortstop. Basically, if Morales outhits Stefen Romero, he’s an upgrade.
More encouragingly, Mitchel Lichtman’s recent research into hitting trends suggests that extended cold streaks, even at the onset of new seasons, rarely indicate a loss in true talent. He studied the patterns of baseball’s hottest and coldest hitters over the past several major league seasons, comparing a player’s rest-of-season-projections with their current season statistics, and he observed that players who deviate significantly from their projection – even over several months – tend to regress toward their projection. This was particularly true among players who were hitting worse than expected.
Digging a little deeper, here’s Lichtman discussing players who underperformed their projections by more than 40 points of wOBA five months into the season: “For the “cold players, we see the same (pattern) as we do at any point in the season. The season-to-date stats are worthless if you know the projection. Three percent of all qualified players (at least 250 PA) hit at least 40 points worse than their projection after five months. They were projected at .338, hit .289 for the first five months… and then hit .339 in the last month.”
Ultimately, Lichtman’s research demonstrates that a player’s ROS projection better predicts how he will hit going forward than their season to date performance. This won’t be true in every single case –major breakthroughs and collapses occasionally happen, as do lingering injuries – but for a healthy player in his early 30’s, it’s best to start with the projections.
This is good news as it relates to Morales. Lichtman used his own projections but he posits that the point holds true with any reasonable projection tool and both of Fangraphs’ systems favor Morales to hit significantly better going forward than he has thus far. ZiPS is the more pessimistic of the two systems and it expects the Mariners DH to hit .250/.301/.394 over the rest of the year, for a 94 wRC+. Steamer likes him more, projecting a .266/.319/.439 line and a wRC+ of 112. Given Morales’ history and a seemingly understandable explanation for his lack of 2014 production – which both systems penalize him for – it’s fair to expect him to hit closer to the latter than the former figure.
Either way though, that’s significantly better than the play the Mariners have received from their designated hitters so far. Like Chris Denorfia, Morales doesn’t have to play like an all-star to help Seattle gain ground d