Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales, the former Kansas City Royal, presumably to DH full-time for the Jays. Morales, a 33-year old switch hitter (who turns 34 in June), fulfills two needs for the Blue Jays: someone to fill their vacant DH slot, and someone who can give the Jays more platoon balance in the middle of the order.
We know that the Jays were looking to be more efficient in terms of splits advantages, or as GM Ross Atkins put it, “create more balance, more platoon effect and potentially more speed.” Perhaps what we weren’t expecting is that the Jays would sign a 0.7 fWAR designated hitter who can’t really run well to put that into practice.
When writing about the signing at FanGraphs, Managing Editor Dave Cameron put it bluntly:
If all he really had to do was hit, Morales would still be a useful piece, but since he then has to try and run after he makes contact, Morales remains an overrated player; his lack of ability to move at human speed renders even his one-dimension of value less worthwhile than it seems. Thirty-four-year-old designated hitters who can’t run aren’t worth much, so even these modest contract forecasts are probably overpays.
Morales won’t be playing the field (or at least, I hope to god there are absolutely no plans to ever let Kendrys Morales play the field), so his only real value is at the plate. According to FanGraphs he was worth negative five runs on the basepath last year, hit only 24 doubles in 558 at bats, and has hit a total of three triples since 2010 (and none in 2016). He still walks quite a bit, so as long as he can maintain his walk-rate, he could be valuable as a .330-.350 OBP guy for the Jays.
Acknowledging all of this, let’s try to prove or refute some statements that may be floating around about Morales’ value to the Blue Jays.
Morales will hit more home runs by playing 81 home games at Rogers Centre.
This is a legitimate thought you might have. Last year he hit 30 home runs, but only 12 of those came at Kauffman Stadium. Let’s use Statcast data to look at all the fly balls Morales hit at Kauffman last year.
A few of those doubles and deep flyouts look pretty close to being home runs, and maybe they translate into home runs at the Rogers Centre.
Using the same Statcast data, let’s plot those fly balls on the Rogers Centre’s dimensions (note: we’re purely looking at park dimensions here, without accounting for things like barometric pressure, temperature, the roof being open/closed, etc.).
If we’re being generous, four or five of those deep fly balls might have ended up as home runs had they been hit at the Rogers Centre. Add four or five HRs to Morales’ total at Kauffman, maybe Morales becomes a 34/35 HR guy if he had played 81 games at Rogers Centre in 2016.
According to ESPN’s Park Factors, you could expect 1.29 times more HRs at the Rogers Centre, which would put Morales’ home HRs at 15, pushing his season total to 33, which is roughly in line with the Statcast flyball data above.
Verdict: Yeah. In 2016, Morales would have hit between 3-5 more HRs by playing 81 games at Rogers Centre. Now, next year he’ll be entering his age 34 season, so while it’s difficult to say whether he would hit 34/35 in 2017, his HR total may not drop off as much as it would have had he remained a Royal. But if you’re expecting a Josh Donaldson-like power surge from Morales simply by switching ballparks, you will be thoroughly disappointed.
Morales will benefit by playing more games within the AL East (and in its hitter-friendly ballparks).
Well… Maybe not.
Let’s look at Morales’ OPS by Park over the past three season (I set the threshold to a minimum 25 at-bats).
He may fare well against the Orioles at Camden Yards, but his OPS in any other (non-Rogers Centre) AL East park has been below .750 over the past three years. And if you’re thinking maybe the short right field fences of Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park will play for Morales and that moving to the AL East would mean more home runs in road ballparks, you’d also be wrong. Here are Morales’ career home runs by park:
Kendrys Morales hit more home runs in 29 plate appearances at the Metrodome (where Twins played until 2009 before moving to Target Field) than he’s hit in 115 plate appearances at Fenway Park. He’s hit three at Yankee Stadium (91 PAs) and in 75 career plate appearances at Tropicana Field he’s hit three home runs and, rather discouragingly, he’s a career .179 hitter at the Trop.
Now, Morales’ contract means that he’ll be playing many more games in those AL East parks over the next three years, so obviously those pure home run numbers will go up; but Morales has yet to be a guy who has had much success in visiting AL East ballparks, and I don’t think you can rely on that suddenly turning around.
Verdict: Don’t expect Morales to be a thorn in the sides of the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox in their home ballparks. How Morales fares on the road against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays will be something to watch for in 2017.
Morales will help the Jays be better against curveballs
The Blue Jays’ struggles against curveballs in the 2016 ALCS are well-documented. To quote Sports Illustrated:
Josh Donaldson torched opposing fastballs in 2016 to the tune of a .297 batting average, .604 slugging percentage and 13 home runs , but against curveballs, those numbers dropped to .245, .453 and two. Jose Bautista hit for a better average against curveballs than fastballs (.279 versus .229), but his slugging percentage and isolated power on curves are markedly lower. Edwin Encarnacion also saw his power take a dive on curveballs (.460 slugging percentage) versus fastballs (.585).
So what about Morales? Maybe he will be the middle of the order, curveball saviour the Jays need?
Using PITCH/fx data from Brooks Baseball, I quickly took a look at how Kendrys Morales fared against all pitch types in 2016:
While it’s pretty easy to see that Morales still mashes fastballs, he doesn’t hit curveballs well (denoted by the .212 BAA), however, his .394 slugging and .182 isolated power mean that even at 33, Morales can still punish any curveballs left over the plate, as you’ll see in the heatmap below:
Verdict: Morales won’t help the Jays against the curveball, but he also won’t make them any worse. He’s still prone to chasing a few curves out of the zone, but, if I were a pitcher, I’d still be careful about hanging a curveball to Kendrys Morales.
The Kendrys Morales signing is like when your parents bought the off-brand version of that toy you really wanted; cheaper, less flashy, and it still does the same thing as what you really wanted – just not as well. Morales won’t fully replace Encarnacion, but you can still expect about 30 home runs and 80-90 RBI. He won’t run well, and he won’t contribute any value in the field, but he can be a serviceable DH.
I have no qualms with the price, nor the length of the contract, even though it will cover Morales through his age-36 year; if the Jays fall out of contention in 2018 or 2019, Morales will be one of the first guys moved at the trade deadline – assuming he maintains any semblance of production. If he’s not producing, he can ride the pine without leaving the Jays with a defensive hole in the field. It’s a low-downside, moderate-upside signing.
If the Morales signing tells us anything about the Shapiro/Atkins regime, however, it’s probably that this front office isn’t the type to get into bidding wars. They have a set price at which signing a player makes sense, and there’s not much room for negotiation. Edwin and Jose likely asked for more than what the Jays felt they were worth. Edwin and Jose wilI get more money elsewhere, and they probably have earned the right to get their money. For the Shapiro/Atkins regime, it’s business as usual.
That’s the thing: baseball is a business. And there’s no being sentimental in business. When your team is owned by a corporate entity like Rogers (who have a fiduciary responsibility to be profitable for their shareholders), and not by Mike Illitch or the Guggenheim Partners, you can’t overspend on contracts that are likely to hamstring your team and jeopardize future competitiveness and future profitability. And Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins know that.