Hunter Morris is having a rough go of it at the Arizona Fall League. Morris turned in a 1-for-4 day with a run scored for the Phoenix Desert Dogs on Monday, putting his overall line at 15-for-55 with two doubles, five walks and 12 strikeouts. Zero triples, zero home runs. Overall, it comes out to a brutal .273/.333/.309 triple-slash.
Of course, it’s only 60 plate appearance, far too little to outweigh Morris’s tremendous season with Double-A Huntsville. In his age-23 season (he turned 24 on Oct. 7) Morris hit .303/.357/.563 in 571 plate appearances for the Stars, with his power production — 28 HR, 6 3B, 40 2B — providing some much-needed life to the Brewers’ minor league system.
But the watchful eye will notice we’ve seen this kind of performance before. It’s a remarkably similar season to what Mat Gamel did in 2008 for Huntsville — .329/.395/.537, 19 HR, 7 3B, 25 2B in 572 plate appearances. Gamel had more singles and fewer extra-base hits, but the peripherals were uncannily close — particularly in terms of contact and plate discipline. Gamel struck out in 19.4 percent of plate appearances and walked in another 9.6 percent compared to 20.5 percent and 7.0 percent respectively for Morris.
Another one to throw in there: Brett Wallace: .281/.403/.438 in Double-A in 2009, 11.7 percent walk rate, 22.1 percent strikeout rate.
Differences exist, to be sure, but these three players fall into a distinct family of prospects: promising power-hitting first basemen with contact issues. All three struck out roughly twice as much as they walked, all three still managed to hit very well compared to other Double-A hitters. All three have zero value if the don’t hit significantly above average at the major league level due to defensive issues — at least, assuming Brett Wallace doesn’t make a permanent home at shortstop after this season.
We’ve seen both Gamel and Wallace fail to develop into anything worthwhile at the major league level, although Gamel’s path to consistent major league at-bats has been blocked by Prince Fielder and an ACL tear. Wallace owns a career .250/.323/.377 line (-0.4 fWAR) in 792 plate appearances; Gamel has a .229/.305/.367 line (0.0 WAR), albeit in just 269 plate appearances.
In both cases, they needed to develop something on top of what they showed in the minors and failed. For both Gamel and Wallace, it was more than just average pop from a first baseman — they can’t hit just 15-20 home runs and succeed in the majors. For Morris, the hurdles are plate discipline and contact — he almost surely won’t be able to walk at a below average rate and strike out at an above average rate and be a productive major leaguer. The other first basemen are too good at hitting; Morris’s defense and speed are too poor.
From Mike Newman, prospect expert at FanGraphs:
Morris has excellent bat speed and impressive power potential, but his swing-and-miss tendencies are a bit concerning. Improved plate discipline would help tighten Morris’ strike zone judgment, but one has to wonder if a player with three years of major college baseball and 1500+ professional plate appearances has much room for growth in that area if it hasn’t improved already. Additionally, Morris is downright bad defensively so the bat will have to carry him.
The emphasis is mine. Gamel and Wallace were both roughly the same age as Morris during the Double-A seasons in question and both failed to develop their secondary skills.
But that’s enough negativity. Morris went from just another guy in the Brewers system to a legitimate bright spot with his 2012 season. Just remember: the road is still long for him. At 24 next year, he likely will have to begin the development of his secondary skills next season with Triple-A Nashville. If he starts out strong and shows better plate discipline or contact skills in the early part of 2013? Then, just maybe, we can get truly excited about a Brewers hitting prospect again.