How did we get here? How did we arrive at the moment where Kendrys Morales became the Royals designated hitter?

It seems the process was two-fold.

First, the Royals were desperate to part with Billy Butler. We’ve written about this at length. There was just no way the Royals were going to bring Butler back. The Royals declined his option, made a token play at re-signing him and then let him go when Oakland ponied up serious cash leading Moore to admit he misread the market. Second, the Royals figured they would go with the method du jour of rotating the DH spot among players who needed a rest and a couple of bench bats to keep them fresh. They didn’t need a full-time designated hitter.

And within a month and a half, their course of direction changed and Morales was at a introductory press conference at The K. Strange days, indeed.

I gave my reaction to the Morales signing when it happened. It hasn’t changed. Instead of rehashing how the Royals could have better spent their money, let’s instead dive into the player the Royals purchased for two years and all those millions.

Morales hit the free agent market following the 2013 season after turning down a qualifying offer from the Mariners. Teams, leery of surrendering a draft pick as part of the cost of signing Morales, kept their distance. Morales didn’t sign a deal until after the 2014 draft in June. Turning down the qualifying offer cost Morales two-plus months of last season. When he finally got in uniform he was… not good.

Let’s just start with the big picture of Morales’s career stats.

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2006 23 LAA 57 215 197 21 46 10 1 5 22 17 28 .234 .293 .371 .664 71
2007 24 LAA 43 126 119 12 35 10 0 4 15 6 21 .294 .333 .479 .812 111
2008 25 LAA 27 66 61 7 13 2 0 3 8 4 7 .213 .273 .393 .666 73
2009 26 LAA 152 622 566 86 173 43 2 34 108 46 117 .306 .355 .569 .924 139
2010 27 LAA 51 211 193 29 56 5 0 11 39 12 31 .290 .346 .487 .833 129
2012 29 LAA 134 522 484 61 132 26 1 22 73 31 116 .273 .320 .467 .787 119
2013 30 SEA 156 657 602 64 167 34 0 23 80 49 114 .277 .336 .449 .785 123
2014 31 TOT 98 401 367 28 80 20 0 8 42 27 68 .218 .274 .338 .612 75
2014 31 MIN 39 162 154 12 36 11 0 1 18 6 27 .234 .259 .325 .584 64
2014 31 SEA 59 239 213 16 44 9 0 7 24 21 41 .207 .285 .347 .632 83
8 Yrs 718 2820 2589 308 702 150 4 110 387 192 502 .271 .324 .460 .784 114
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2015.

The conventional wisdom is missing spring training in 2014 hurt Morales. I certainly understand that point. And I’m sure it played a role in his struggles. However, to broach this argument is to make it sound like he improved over time. Slow start and he picked up a little steam as he got more plate appearances during the season. Except that’s not how it went down.

June – .215/.250/.316 with a 52 wRC+
July – .216/.243/.289 with a 46 wRC+
Aug – .255/.321/.388 with a 103 wRC+
Sept – .183/.276/.355 with a 81 wRC+

That’s one month out of four where he was roughly a league average hitter. That’s three months out of four where he was breathtakingly subpar. The Mariners finished one game back of the A’s for the final Wild Card spot. It’s not a stretch to imagine Morales and his -0.9 fWAR cost Seattle a shot at the postseason. He was that much of a liability in the lineup.

Let’s take a step back and look again at Morales’s career numbers. There’s a breakout 2009. There’s the truncated 2010 season when he broke his leg jumping on home plate celebrating a walk-0ff, 10th inning grand slam. There’s the missing 2011 thanks to said injury. Then, there’s a nice little comeback. He never reached his pre-injury offensive heights, but when you miss a season and a half and return to average an OPS+ of 121 and post a wRC+ of 119 in back to back seasons, that’s a comeback.

In examining the market for Nelson Cruz, Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus came up with the term “bomb-ass designated hitter.” The thinking goes that teams don’t really need a designated hitter. They can survive the way the Royals thought they would navigate the American League in 2015 by rotating a cast of characters in the role. It’s less expensive and, with the correct roster, it can be effective. Now, if you’re going to spend money on a full-time DH, that DH had better be amazing. He’d better be bomb-ass. And according to Miller, bomb-ass for a DH is one who owns around a 128 OPS+.

It turns out there are very few bomb-ass designated hitters. Victor Martinez? If he’s healthy, he’s totally bomb-ass. David Ortiz? Don’t be silly. Bomb-ass. Old friend Billy Butler? Not bomb-ass, but closer than you may think.

Here is a list of players who, from 2010 to 2014, have collected at least 1,000 plate appearances and had at least half of those plate appearances coming as a designated hitter. In the interest of discovering who is bomb-ass, the list is sorted by OPS+.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 David Ortiz 151 2796 34-38 660 2403 378 701 167 4 149 465 367 462 .292 .384 .551 .935
2 Victor Martinez 133 2442 31-35 582 2199 295 697 141 1 78 368 210 207 .317 .374 .488 .863
3 Billy Butler 122 3301 24-28 791 2937 342 872 180 1 87 428 309 482 .297 .365 .448 .812
4 Travis Hafner 118 1392 33-36 360 1202 141 304 59 3 50 178 151 298 .253 .350 .432 .782
5 Luke Scott 116 1388 32-35 382 1223 156 306 75 4 59 189 134 295 .250 .327 .463 .790
6 Kendrys Morales 112 1791 27-31 439 1646 182 435 85 1 64 234 119 329 .264 .319 .434 .753
7 Vladimir Guerrero 109 1233 35-36 297 1155 143 341 57 2 42 178 52 116 .295 .332 .457 .789
8 Johnny Damon 102 1484 36-38 359 1328 185 344 71 14 28 143 137 209 .259 .331 .397 .728
9 Hideki Matsui 102 1246 36-38 320 1094 120 276 53 1 35 163 131 204 .252 .330 .399 .728
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/2/2015.

Wow. Some old-timers on that list. Let’s run it again, but this time narrow the span to three seasons and 500 plate appearances.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 David Ortiz 156 1585 36-38 369 1360 208 399 91 2 88 267 207 234 .293 .385 .557 .942
2 Victor Martinez 139 1309 34-35 310 1166 155 370 69 0 46 186 124 104 .317 .381 .495 .876
3 Billy Butler 117 1950 26-28 474 1745 191 509 91 1 53 255 174 309 .292 .358 .436 .794
4 Adam Dunn 110 1767 32-34 431 1493 196 319 52 0 97 246 252 570 .214 .329 .443 .773
5 Kendrys Morales 110 1580 29-31 388 1453 153 379 80 1 53 195 107 298 .261 .315 .427 .742
6 Luke Scott 103 635 34-35 187 567 62 133 35 3 23 95 51 143 .235 .304 .429 .733
7 Travis Hafner 102 562 35-36 148 481 54 103 14 3 24 71 64 126 .214 .322 .405 .727
8 Delmon Young 97 1224 26-28 337 1150 111 313 54 2 36 142 50 241 .272 .308 .417 .725
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/2/2015.

Morales hasn’t been a bomb-ass DH since he broke his leg. He’s been adequate, but he hasn’t been worth the big bucks. Not even close.

Fine. The 2014 season hurt his numbers, you say. Badly. Such an outlier, you may suggest, it would be unfair to include it in your assessment of Morales as a bomb-ass DH. Sadly, as much as you may want to explain it away, you can’t. It happened. It was real. And it was ugly. So, so ugly. This is not some sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It cannot be erased.

Then what exactly happened to Morales in 2014 that made it so awful? In a nutshell, he stopped driving the ball.

Compare his spray chart from 2013 to his chart from last season. Notice how much deeper his fly balls travelled in ’13 compared to ’14.

MoralesSpray

Morales is a switch-hitter and his power comes primarily from the right side. There are clusters of blue representing fly balls in left and center that are present in 2014, but they aren’t as deep on the plot as 2013. That has to account for something. As RJ Anderson discovered at Baseball Prospectus, Morales posted career low BABIP on both line drives and fly balls last year.

Morales floundered from both sides last year.

As LHB – .206/.271/.313 with a .239 BABIP and 64 wRC+

As RHB – .239/.281/.381 with a .252 BABIP and 86 wRC+

The power spike as a right-handed batter comes clubbing four home runs in 134 at bats compared to four home runs in 233 at bats as a lefty. Again, that’s where his power lives – from the right side.

Can Morales bounce back? Certainly. No matter how you slice it, 2014 vibes rock bottom. I would bet Morales sees improvement. The projection systems tend to agree.

Steamer – .262/.319/.419 with a 107 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR

ZiPS – .261/.315/.417 with a 105 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR

PECOTA – .266/.320/.426 with a .276 TAv and 1.2 WARP

Those are some numbers that represent a nice bounce back. If only he were a middle infielder. Alas, he doesn’t own a glove and those numbers are still far from bomb-ass. If the Royals were so hell-bent on throwing money away, they should have just exercised Butler’s option and been saddled with an overpriced DH for one year instead of two. Oh, well. The horse has left the barn and all that.

Industry estimates of Morales’s contract varied from one year at $5 million to 2 years and $20 million. The Royals brought him on board for two years at $17 million. He will earn $6.5 million this season and $9 million in 2016. There is a mutual option for $11 million in ’17 that the Royals can buyout for $1.5 million. No matter how you slice this contract, it’s on the high side of the spectrum and represents a severe overpay for a one-dimensional player whose one dimension is fading. And now, just months after floating the idea they would use the designated hitter position to rotate among their offense, the Royals have a full-time DH on their roster. A DH who is in the decline phase of his career and hasn’t been bomb-ass since 2010 just before he suffered a horrific injury.

The signing didn’t make sense when it happened and it doesn’t make sense today. In fact, there isn’t a way to spin this in a positive for a team in the position of the Royals. The Royals (and their small market brethren) need to make smart fiscal decisions. That means shopping on the free agent market for a DH is folly. Especially one who clearly isn’t bomb-ass like Morales.