As the 2014 season wrapped up, it was clear that first base was going to be a position of concern for the Marlins. For 2014, Marlins first basemen slashed .254/.313./.402, ultimately providing 0.1 fWAR for the entire season. First base is often a significant source of offensive production, yet the group as a whole had a 98 wRC+. The need for more offense was glaring so the Marlins signed first baseman Michael Morse to a 2-year, $16 million contract. Of course, the Marlins view Morse as an upgrade over their internal options. The team wouldn’t sign him otherwise. But what should the expectations be for Michael Morse?
Morse has had a rather confusing career to this point. Despite a 122 wRC+, he’s provided just 3.6 fWAR over 2509 plate appearances, or 0.86 fWAR/600 plate appearances. This is mostly due to some injury problems and pretty dreadful defense. The hope is that moving him down the defensive spectrum will solve both of these issues. Playing first base is much easier than playing the outfield and it puts a lot less strain on a player’s body.
The focus isn’t on his defense, however. It is on his offense. Morse is known for his power, and it’s that one tool that has carried him so far in his career. Morse doesn’t have great contact ability; he chases pitches more often than average, in general he swings more often than average, and he makes contact less often than average. Generally, when you think of a hitter that posts above average BABIP figures, you think of someone that possesses an above average hit tool. Despite his clear deficiencies in the hit tool department, Morse has put up a .333 BABIP for his career. The average in 2014 was .299, although it has been a little lower than that over previous years.
So while Morse isn’t great at making contact, he excels at optimizing the contact he does make. Morse is very good at squaring up the balls he comes into contact with, allowing his impressive power to play in-game. This shows in not just his BABIP but also his average flyball distance, in which he consistently ranks among the top 15 in the game when healthy. Since 2010, Morse’s average flyball distance is 299.09 feet, which would’ve ranked 18th last season (that includes a shortened 2013 that brings the average down a bit.) Morse also owns a 19.04% home run/flyball rate since 2010. The league average in 2014 was 9.6%.
So what does any of the aforementioned mean? Well, I’m going to try to paint a picture of what kind of hitter Morse will be while playing most of his games at Marlins Park. Thanks to some work done at Fangraphs, we can find an expected HR/FB% based off average flyball distance. Based off his average distance since 2010, we can expect his HR/FB% to be 15.8%. It appears his home run rates got a bit of a boost in Washington as he posted rates of 19.5%, 21.2%, and 23.4% between 2010-12. That dropped to 17.3% while with the Mariners in 2013 (which, of course, was a shortened season), and finally to 15.1% while playing for the San Francisco Giants in 2014.
This decline in numbers is not by any means a cause for concern: as expected, Morse’s HR/FB rate was negatively affected as he moved to less hitter-friendly environments. In 2014, Morse averaged a distance of 299.57 feet on his fly balls, which is almost identical to his average since 2010. That 15.1% HR/FB% with the Giants is also very similar to his “true” 15.8% over the past 5 seasons. Basically, the power output from last season is a reasonable expectation of Morse at least over the next season.
But Marlins Park is known to be death on hitters, so how will that affect him? First, Marlins Park is rather neutral in terms of run scoring. Second, AT&T Park was more suppressive of home runs than Marlins Park in 2014, featuring a park factor of 87 versus a park factor of 89 for Marlins Park. The difference is (ever so slightly) bigger when you break it down by hitter handedness. The park factor for right-handed home runs in San Francisco was 88. In Miami, it was 91. All told, the difference, if any, would be negligible. It is good that Morse had a .196 ISO and slugged .475 while with the Giants. He showed he could still be a huge power threat while playing in home park that suppresses seemingly everyone except for Barry Bonds. If he did it there, he could repeat that kind of production in a better run environment.
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Hold on, there’s even more! The main issue with right-handed home runs at Marlins Park is the deep/tall left field fence. This would definitely be quite the issue for a pull-happy power hitter, which Morse is not. The average angle on Morse’s is 9.4 degrees, or nine degrees towards the right field foul line. Morse is less of a dead pull hitter and more of a gap hitter. Marlins Park is known for its expansive gaps, especially in right-center field. That means those hard-hit fly balls might fall in for extra base hits even more often. Indeed, Marlins Park features a 101 park factor on doubles compared to 98 for AT&T Park. Given the average angle of Morse’s fly balls, Marlins Park might actually have the ideal configuration for a hitter like Morse.
So, what can we expect from Michael Morse? While the 16 home runs he hit last season probably didn’t blow anyone away (after all, Garrett Jones did hit 15), that shouldn’t be the focus when it comes time to evaluate Morse. It would be fair to expect 15-20 home runs, but more importantly Morse might be able to put up something like 40 doubles and push that slugging percentage close to .500, if not over. Morse has been unable to turn his impressive ball striking abilities into consistent overall production.
However, Morse might not ever feel more at home in Miami. Besides the fact that he was born there, he’ll be able to settle in to a position that can keep him healthy while playing in a ballpark that might be quite conducive for his batted ball output. At the end of the day (or season, rather), Morse might be worth something between 1-2 fWAR. The expectations aren’t high, but the production will be a clear improvement.
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