Three Reasons to Love the Karns-Miller Trade: Part 2
In part one of my three-part series I looked at the Karns component of the Rays recent trade with the Mariners, and came away relatively satisfied with the biggest piece that the Rays offloaded. The next two parts will shift towards a deeper dive aimed at the sticks the Rays received with the topic du jour being the not really an outfielder anymore Logan Morrison who profiles to help the Rays with their DH/1B needs against righties. The role may seem small, but it’s one that John Jaso filled capably when his body allowed him to get on the field so it is easy to see why the Rays acted quickly to find a replacement for the free agency-bound Jaso. The question becomes what, exactly, the Rays are getting with LoMo?
Humble beginnings led to burgeoning hype for the 2005 high school pick. Let’s let Baseball-Prospectus give us some background starting with their report released prior to the 2009 season:
2009: A 22nd-round pick in the 2005 draft, Morrison has been impressive the last two seasons. Thanks to his excellent plate coverage and textbook swing, the lefty was able to add power to his game in 2007 and drop his strikeouts considerably after a promotion to High-A in 2008. He’s not going to be a power-hitting first baseman, instead profiling as a high AVG/OBP guy, but with his approach he should succeed at the higher levels. He dominated the Arizona Fall League, hitting .404/.444/.667 in 99 at-bats, so if he adjusts to Double-A with little problem, the majors won’t be too far out of reach for this polished hitter.
2010: While the Marlins employed Nick Johnson at the major-league level, they had a potential doppelganger down on the farm, a duplicate right down to the injury bug—Morrison missed about two months nursing a fractured wrist. At least Morrison’s walk total speaks to his more positive Johnsonian qualities. This was a huge jump in patience; Morrison had taken only 105 walks in his previous 258 games, and we’ll have to see if it sticks. It had better, because his home-run power has ebbed since he poked those 24 homers at Greensboro, and if he’s going to succeed at first base he’s either going to have to remember how to launch a few or else continue to be awfully patient.
2011: Morrison got banged up early on, missing a month at New Orleans after a collision at first. Following Coghlan’s breakdown, the Marlins slotted him directly into the everyday lineup as an outfielder. The batsmanship is there: between tremendous plate coverage and pitch identification, Morrison will be an OBP force. The problem is that he hasn’t delivered power since a Sally League stint in 2007, his last season with an isolated power above .200. As long as Morrison is reaching base around 40 percent of the time, his clubs can afford to let him stomp around a corner, but showing some kind of pop would make a huge difference in terms of his being either a Dave Magadan-like curiosity or a bona fide star.
2012: Morrison responded to pitchers challenging him inside by yanking an uncharacteristic number of balls to right field, increasing his pull percentage by 10 percent at the expense of going the other way. The resulting power spike sent Morrison’s trademark plate discipline on hiatus, and after the season he admitted that the aggressive approach wasn’t his game. Part of the reason he couldn’t get out of his funk was because hitting coach John Mallee, credited by Morrison for rebuilding his swing in the minors, was fired by the Marlins in early June. He was hitting .295/.382/.521 at the time of Mallee’s dismissal, but slumped to .225/.304/.443 the rest of the way. Morrison criticized the firing and was subsequently demoted to Triple-A in a controversial move by the club.
2013: Shelved for much of the summer by a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, Morrison played in only 93 games, leaving him plenty of time to entertain Twitter followers with posts about body parts and functions and drinking Four Loko. Injuries have done their part in stunting the former top prospect’s development, but Morrison’s immaturity has not helped, and the June 2011 dismissal of hitting coach John Mallee—which Morrison, to the organization’s displeasure, publicly panned—left his approach in disarray. With Gaby Sanchez in Pittsburgh, first base is there for Morrison’s taking. He has to stay on the field and return to the patient, sweet-swinging ways that got his career off to such a promising start.
2014: Morrison’s injury history over the past three seasons shows 11 different knee-related items, including the surgery on his right patellar tendon that cost him 123 games between 2012 and 2013. Hence, he remains more Twitter notable than baseball notable. His approach, which was always a big part of his prospect status, turned more aggressive in 2013. His swing rate of 45 percent was a career high by more than five percentage points and led to weaker contact—his isolated power and slugging percentages were both career worsts. The Mariners bought low, but if his terrible defense gets worse with age they might end up selling even lower someday.
2015: Morrison didn’t have a fantastic year: Compare his line to local pariah Justin Smoak’s 2013 effort. (If you’re lazy and don’t want to flip four chapters ahead: They’re basically the same.) But he did get hot exactly when the rest of the team curled into the fetal position, racking up several clutch hits to propel the team just short of the finish line. By agreeing to the Mariners Hitter Written Agreement’s “swing at everything” clause, Morrison has turned himself into a strange type of player, one whose offensive value is almost entirely predicated on hitting line drives. This makes him the new James Loney, as long as he’s seeing the ball well; it makes him the old Eric Hosmer when he isn’t. None of the comparisons in this comment are exciting for any of the people involved.
Reading through this you get the feel of a player that has battled injuries throughout his career. A guy that pairs a good eye with a line drive swing that doesn’t lend to much power. A guy that probably shouldn’t see the field due to the injury concerns, but there may be a chance you can work on his approach to get him back to doing the things that will leave him successful. Let’s dig into that a bit:
Let’s start with the left hand table, which shows the age 23-28 performance for all 437 players that had at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2002 – ’15. In the first column you can see Morrison’s cumulative line throughout his career for statistics I find important. To gain context I have calculated his z-score for each category against the group. In this way we can more easily identify the strengths and weaknesses in his game that make him the player that he is. The color scale runs from low (red) to high (green) and please note that I have not made judgements on whether low or high is necessarily bad or good. Take his swinging strike rate (SwStr), for instance. The standardized score of -0.6 helps us see that he’s a good distance from the average and the negative symbol lets us know that he has put up a lower rate than his peers over his career. We have already located one positive in his game, he whiffs less often than his peers and by quite a bit.
Sticking in that box we see that he sees strikes at a much lower rate, and part of the reason for that is a below average first strike rate. Go up a box and we see some stuff that is even more encouraging. He makes a ton of contact. Now part of that is due to the less desirable out of zone contact, but he also puts a ton of strikes in play as well. The Loney comparisons seem more apt when you see a low whiff – high contact guy, but his basically average ISO might bring a little more to the table than the incumbent. His batted ball profile skews to the average with pop ups representing the bad news and the lower than average line drive rate furthering that message. On the other hand we do see good stuff in his walk and strike out rates. So far the scouting report appears rather spot on. Another deficiency in his game is that he looks like a downright poor baserunner, as well as, base stealer. Then we get to the BABIP, which is incredibly low and works to suppress the rest of his triple slash. Its a huge sample at this point so I see no reason to think that he will put up a league average rate even if you think he should do a bit better this year.
Continuing down that rabbit hole let’s shift over to the right-hand portion of the table where I have turned my sights on the 375 guys that accrued at least 1,000 plate appearances versus right-handed pitchers during the 2008 – ’15 term. The first thing that I’m drawn to is how heavily he leans towards pulling the ball. He’s hitting the ball hard more often than his peers, which is nice, but it is probably pretty easy to shift against his dead-pull tendencies. This brings us back to BABIP. If he continues to be a dead-pull hitter then I wouldn’t expect that BABIP to increase dramatically so you’re probably still looking at his triple-slash being suppressed. However, even with that suppression there is a lot to be happy about. The wRC+ is nice and shiny at 111, but when you dig into the components you find that his good walk and strikeout rates get even stronger against righties. Add in much better thump including more fly balls leaving the yard and it isn’t hard to find Morrison’s strong suit.
This leaves me in a bit of a conundrum as a shift in approach that helps him spray the ball around might help him to post better batting average and on-base percentages, but it might cause him to lose all that pull power that the Rays so desperately need. With his well below average base running I think I would prefer the power approach even if it means something like a .240/.315/.410 line, which is basically what Steamer sees him at, overall. I think that might go a touch higher if he sees mostly righties, but I found that his regressed platoon split (9.5%) was the 132nd largest in this group. Which is to say that it’s not nearly as wide as I thought. For context we can look at James Loney’s 12.4% (40th largest) or former Ray Matt Joyce at 15.2% (10th). Other players of interest include Daniel Nava at 11.7% (59th), Grady Sizemore at 14.4% (15th) and John Jaso at 13.2% (23rd). All of these guys had very wide splits and the Rays played them accordingly. If LoMo is showing confidence at the plate and productivity against righties I think I’d be fine with him seeing most lefties, as well.
With the background and SWOT analysis out of the way I want to now look at how he has arrived at these bottom line figures. All of the following data comes from the superlative Baseball Savant. Let’s start with pitch values using Joe Sheehan’s certainly outdated, but still really useful figures:
Previously we have looked at his total numbers and in the above image we can see that those numbers may be propped up a bit from a scintillating start to his career. I’m mildly encouraged by the bounce back last year from the death knell that occurred between his 6,000th and 7,500th trailing averages. This looks like a case of a guy getting figured out and never really being able to make the adjustment. This suggests an exploitable hole in his swing or some other way to get him out consistently with execution. Maybe it’s his approach:
I believe that Daren uses the rule book strike zone and not the commonly called zone so zone percentage is probably going to be lower here than you’re likely to see elsewhere, but man does that swing rate jump off the page. He has mostly settled in between 45 and 50% while his zone percentage has mostly held steady. That’s interesting, what about when he does put the ball in play:
Early in his career you can see the gap between his batting average and his slugging percentage on balls in play. That indicates he was hitting for extra bases more often. The back half of his career shows a much smaller gap. Most of his career sees a batting average on balls in play (BABIP with homers added in) between .280 and .300. When he’s lower than that it’s pretty ugly, but if he can sustain that bump in BACON then he’s also going to bring an acceptable SLGCON even if it’s a ton of singles. I liked the contact rates over his career they seemed to stand out as a plus, but:
Keep in mind that I am excluding foul balls here, while most folks are going to consider those as contact. Don’t pay quite as much attention to the percentages when the obvious point is how far he has fallen off the last couple of years. Despite that one blip the downward trend in contact rate is apparent. I suppose it is possible that he was hurt, started the year healthy, and then played through another injury again. Maybe that’s the case and he gets back to the batter he was earlier in his career. He will be awfully tough to have in the lineup if he’s pairing a bad contact rate with a low rate of his balls in play actually going for hits. To back this up somewhat here’s a caveat–laden look at his batted ball velocity in 2015 (the only year with publicly available data.):
Readily apparent is that he started off strong and tailed off throughout the year. I think this might support the idea of him playing through a nagging injury, but with this being a common refrain year in, and year out, you have to wonder how long it will last even if he is playing well this year. Maybe the Rays catch lightning in a bottle and he plays well AND stays healthy, but I wouldn’t count on it. Lastly, I want to look at some heat maps showing both process and results. Let’s start with the fastball (2&4-seam, cutter, sinker):
Please support Jeff Zimmerman’s Baseball Heatmaps any way that you can. He’s entirely the reason we can look at this and the rest of these images so easily. These are all from the catcher’s point of view so Logan would be standing to the right of each box. All numbers are for his entire career compared to the league average. Against lefties we see a couple of holes. He’s extremely swing happy on pitches up, and he goes full Souza on anything low-and-away. Refusing to swing at that fastball is an indicator that he doesn’t pick up spin well so he’s mostly just taking and praying. Lefties that can spot the fastball there should be able to routinely beat LoMo. He still likes the ball up against righties as he’s leaving alone pretty much everything down. This could be a good thing. As we have seen he is a bad base-runner with a lengthy injury history. He’s exactly the guy we don’t want running hard. When he’s swinging at those low fastballs he’s just going to hit ground balls all day. He should be trying to elevate pitches and that starts with where they’re coming in. I don’t mind this approach. Here are his results using run values:
Predictably he doesn’t do a whole lot with the fastball up from lefties. He has a nice little hot spot thigh high and in, and holds his own on most of the middle half, but away and up are a real weakness. Against righties we see that he’s really good on pitches out of the zone. This is the plate discipline that scouts loved even back when. He’s not all smart takes, however, woe be unto the righty that leaves a fastball up and inner third. He controls the zone well, for the most part accept away and down. Being a pull hitter we’ll see him roll over a ton of stuff down there and it will be frustrating watching him get rung up looking, but it might all be worth it if it means he is punishing mistakes over the fat part of the plate. Let’s look at the breaking ball (slider, curve, knuckle curve):
Well that looks like a hole. He doesn’t stay in on the breaking ball from lefties so I bet he just gets eaten alive. If he wasn’t so fragile I would recommend copying Logan Forsythe and Brandon Guyer. Stand on top of the plate so if they want to throw that in there you’re getting a free base. He also leaves all back door stuff alone from righties. They can get him swing down-and-in on back foot stuff, as well. Here are his run values:
His approach to the lefty breaking ball has actually been pretty good on the inside stuff. By never swinging he’s getting everything off the plate called a ball and still managing to cover the inner third for the most part. Away still looks like a weakness. He controls the zone pretty well against righties, but we’re starting to get into small sample size theatre so I have less confidence in this stuff than I do with the fastball. Here’s the cambio (change up, splitter):
Like the righty breaking ball, the lefty change is a pretty small sample so let’s skip over that and focus on the righty change. This should be a pretty effective weapon against him, but it looks like he swings appropriately for the most part. He should be jumping all over the high change and taking it down and in as a guy that likes the ball up is a forgivable offense. How about the results:
Again, skipping lefties and focusing on righties we see the common pattern that he can’t do a whole lot with the outer third pitch, but does reasonably well against a lot of the zone.
Logan Morrison is a guy that is probably on his last real chance to make any money in this game. I don’t see him taking the field very often unless James Loney is completely toast, which is a nice way to build in a backup plan for something that isn’t all that far-fetched. He’s not going to do much on the bases, either. He’s probably going to get hurt, as well. The one thing he does well is hit the righty fastball hard. If the Rays were looking for some cheap, lefty power this year they certainly could have done a lot worse or spent a lot more. There’s not much upside, but there’s a chance he is both durable and productive. The Rays will do their level best to put him in the position to hide his weaknesses, which should help him rest with the added bonus of maybe those lingering pains don’t turn into something more sinister this year.
When he’s not hitting he’ll be able to walk a bit, which should help the team and when combined with his relatively smaller platoon split he could present a nice pinch hit option for a manager that does it more than any other. Overall, I think Morrison was a bit of a shrewd move for the Rays front office and if it doesn’t work out there isn’t a long term commitment. Here’s hoping for consecutive years of Logan breakouts.