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.
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+.
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.
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.
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.