Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
It’s time to talk about the free-agent slugger who hit 38 home runs in 2017 and who’s vanished into thin air on Major League Baseball’s offseason market.
No, not Mike Moustakas. He’s been covered.
The other one. You know. Logan Morrison.
The 30-year-old first baseman seemed positioned to get his first big payday following a long-awaited breakout in 2017. The Tampa Bay Rays paid him just $2.5 million. For that, they got an .868 OPS, the aforementioned 38 dingers and 3.6 wins above replacement. All were career bests.
But with pitchers and catchers due to report to spring training in February, it’s hard to hear anything other than crickets coming from Morrison’s corner of the rumor mill.
The most recent entry on his MLB Trade Rumors page was on Jan. 5. That referenced a report from MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi that the New York Mets had him on their radar. They ended up signing Adrian Gonzalez instead. The last report referenced before that was a Dec. 12 note from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that connected Morrison to the Cleveland Indians. They went on to sign Yonder Alonso.
It’s possible there’s more going on behind the scenes that isn’t making its way to the masters of whispers who pass on rumors to the general public.
From the outside looking in, though, it’s hard not to wonder whether Morrison’s market is as bleak as it seems.
He has two roles that aren’t exactly in high demand. One is as a first baseman, which is something few teams had a need for even before the Mets, Indians and Boston Red Sox (with Mitch Moreland) filled theirs. Another is as a slugger, which isn’t as much of an attention-grabbing title at a time when MLB has more home runs than it knows what to do with.
Besides, it’s been hard out there for all free agents this winter. And given Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta and Moustakas have gotten the cold shoulder from teams for this long, it’s only natural a comparatively new star like Morrison would as well.
He was a promising young player in 2010 and 2011 but fell into a hole between 2012 and 2016 wherein he averaged just a .712 OPS, 12 homers and 0.2 WAR per year. Five years of flops like that can’t be disregarded altogether.
However, Morrison does have one advantage over other top free agents. Whereas Arrieta, Hosmer, Moustakas, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and Greg Holland all tied themselves to draft-pick compensation by rejecting qualifying offers, Morrison never got one. Signing him will only cost a team money.
At this juncture, it’s probably not going to be a lot of money. So any team that does need a slugger should be asking itself the following: Why not roll the dice on a guy who just showed he can be a terrific slugger?
It’s not as if Morrison’s power came out of nowhere. It’s something that’s been there since the early days of his career. As evidence, consider him sharing the highlight reel for the Miami Marlins’ longest homers of 2013 with Giancarlo Stanton:
Morrison merely needed to find ways to tap into his power more frequently. For that, he followed two recommended procedures: Don’t swing at as much junk, and try to hit more balls in the air.
Morrison’s walk rate didn’t spike to 13.5 percent last year by accident. For a while, he had been losing his restraint and jacking up his swing rate outside the strike zone. That rate is on its way back down:
This could be related to what Morrison said about learning to relax in an April 2017 interview with David Laurila of FanGraphs:
“I think about hitting less than I used to. It’s been an evolution process. I wasn’t thinking about it at all when I first came up, then I started thinking about it all the time. … Now it’s more of just letting it happen. If it happens it happens, and if it doesn’t, go get ’em tomorrow. I don’t start thinking I have to change something.“
That said, Morrison has made one change many players are making during the Statcast era. He told Laurila he’s come to value “launch angle and all that stuff.” And it shows. His launch angle is on the following trajectory:
- 2015: 10.8º
- 2016: 12.1º
- 2017: 17.6º
The higher a player’s launch angle, the more he’s getting under the ball. And the more a slugger like Morrison is getting under the ball, the more likely he is to hit the ball out of the ballpark.
Such was the case for Morrison in 2017, when his fly-ball rate and home-runs-per-fly-ball rate took off, per FanGraphs:
Mind you, a few changes for the better does not a perfect hitter make.
Morrison has become a below-average contact hitter. That’s often an unfortunate side effect for hitters who seek higher launch angles, as it tends to require taking a more indirect path to the ball. Elsewhere, extra balls in the air haven’t made him any more immune to defensive shifts than the next left-swinging slugger.
He also has flaws outside the batter’s box. He’s not a standout runner. And while the defensive metrics don’t rate him as a poor defender at first base, they don’t rate him as a decidedly good one, either.
But as long as teams are interested in Morrison’s offense first and everything else second, the upside of rolling the dice on his 2017 breakout is not to be underestimated. His adjusted OPS+ of 135 meant he was 35 percent better than the average hitter last year. He was far better than Moustakas (116) and even better than Hosmer (132). Not to mention guys like Nolan Arenado (132), Anthony Rizzo (132) and Edwin Encarnacion (128).
That kind of potential should have intrigued teams from the beginning. There are few reasons it shouldn’t now.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.