Justin Morneau was once the best hitter, and possibly the best player, in the American League.
Not for a full season, mind you, and certainly not in his AL MVP-winning season of 2006. But at the end of the day on July 7, 2010, Morneau had played exactly a half-season's worth of games and was hitting .345/.437/.618 (good for a 187 OPS+), with 18 home runs. He was near the league lead in most offensive categories, getting rave reviews for his defense, and leading the world in most versions of wins above replacement.
That night, though, Morneau took a knee to the head as he slid into second base. He missed the rest of the season with a concussion, ending with a Baseball-Reference WAR of 4.6 that is his career best despite just 81 games and 348 plate appearances. Though he was back for the start of 2011, he wasn't really back, per se, and he ended up playing in only 69 games in that season.
Though he returned and had a reasonably productive 2012 with the bat in 134 games, Morneau's never really been "back." From 2006 through that personally catastrophic night in 2010, Morneau hit .298/.372/.528 (138 OPS+) and put up a shade under four wins above replacement for every 150 games he played; from 2011 through Monday, he's hit .263/.323/.403 (99 OPS+) with a little less than half a win per 150.
The 2013 season has been a different animal altogether. Morneau entered play on Tuesday with an impressive enough .299 batting average, but his overall line is just .299/.348/.401, good for a 104 OPS+ at a position where the league's average is 117.
He looks healthy. He's playing excellent defense again. He's incredibly slow on the bases, but that's always been true. He's always been great at putting the ball in play by the standards of a power hitter, and he's just as good in that area as ever, with (per FanGraphs) an 84 percent contact rate and 14 percent strikeout rate that would both be his best since 2008.
The question, I suppose, is whether Morneau will be able to be considered a "power hitter" anymore. He's hit just two home runs in 2013 -- none of them coming in the month of May -- and, as Aaron Gleeman points out, has a total of just four in his last roughly half of a season. He is second on the Twins with 13 doubles, and has really stung some line drives (with, according to FanGraphs, a near-22 percent line drive rate that's better than his career average), but for whatever reason, he hasn't been driving the ball in the air with any authority.
Photo credit: Hannah Foslien
To my eyes -- and as a Minnesotan, I've gotten to watch Morneau quite a lot -- he's the same guy with the same swing as ever: a broad, aggressive, sweeping swing, top hand flying off, that seems geared toward high-outside fastballs. It's not as though he's consciously become a slap-hitting, high-average first baseman, a la Dave Magadan or the two good seasons of Doug Mientkiewicz. His fly ball rate (40 percent) is just one percentage point lower than his career average, and is higher than it was in either 2011 or in his MVP-runner-up year of 2008. He hasn't visibly changed his approach, and he's getting the ball in the air: it's just not traveling as far when it gets up there, though he's not just popping it up, either, with fewer infield flies than his career average. Why is that?
Well, it's still May (if barely), and anyone who tells you he or she knows the answer to a question like that is likely selling something. Albert Pujols had just one homer in his first 153 plate appearances of 2012, and then hit 29 in his next 439; maybe Morneau is about to snap out of it and go on a (smaller-scale but) similar tear.
I have a theory, though, and it's more troubling than that, and it also has to do with Pujols. Last April, amidst Pujols' struggles, Sam Miller noted that Pujols had largely stopped walking during the latter half of 2011. He was swinging at a lot more pitches, and more pitches out of the zone. One of Sam's many theories was that Pujols was compensating for a slowed reaction time and/or bat speed by swinging at more pitches; if your swing is slower, you need to decide to swing sooner, which, one imagines, means swinging at more bad pitches. And while Pujols' power came back in a big way later in 2012, there's no question his walk rates have been consistently lower, his swing rate higher, and his swing rate at pitches out of the strike zone much higher from 2011-2013 than they ever were in his brilliant preceding decade. That patience and pitch selection, it appears, just isn't a luxury Pujols will be able to afford from here on out.
I think a similar thing might be happening, on a smaller scale, to the 32-year-old Morneau. By Fangraphs' reckoning, in 2012 and 2013, Morneau has swung at about 54 percent of all pitches, up from a career rate just over 50 percent; more disturbingly, he's swung at more than 38 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to a career rate of just 31.5 percent. It's been bad for his walks, naturally (he's walked in less than seven percent of his plate appearances, against his career average of 9.5 percent), but it also stands to reason that if he's swinging at more bad pitches, Morneau is (a) less likely to drive the ball when he puts it in play, and (b) taking fewer balls and thus likely to get himself into less favorable counts, both of which would help explain the low power output.
As was the case with Pujols, Morneau could just be pressing, too eager to rack up hits; Morneau early in a free agent year, Pujols early in the first year of the sport's biggest contract. But at 32 and with a hockey player's injury history, as was the case with Pujols, it's fair to wonder whether it's not something more permanent and troubling than that.
Now, Morneau is a big, strong guy, and the two home runs he has hit weren't cheap (nor were the three he hit in spring training). Whatever the cause, he'll run into a few more straight fastballs than he has been so far and hit them a very long way. But if this plate discipline is a permanent sort of change, it's a bit hard to see him getting back to the 19 he hit in 2012.
There's plenty of value in a good-glove, .300-hitting first baseman; FanGraphs likes his defense so far, and puts him on about a three-win pace, comfortably above average. Of course, he's built that near-.300 average on the strength of a .338 batting average on balls in play, which is higher than he's put up in any other season save 2010 and more than 40 points higher than his career average, and if his ability to be selective at the plate has taken something like a permanent hit, we might expect that average to go down further (and the strikeouts to go up) as pitchers throw him fewer and fewer strikes. Without at least the threat of 25- to 30-home-run power, Morneau's remaining potential as a useful player hangs by a very, very thin thread.
Morneau's always seemed like an exceptionally hard-working guy, and has tremendous talent, and has suffered a number of really, really bad breaks. He certainly could just be pressing. He could draw 25 walks and hit ten homers in June, rendering this post utterly ridiculous, and I hope he does. But there are warning signs here, signs that go back to and haven't substantially changed since his return in 2011. He's four months from free agency, so if the patience and power are going to come back, they'd better come back soon.