Doug Melvin wheeled and dealed his way to an NL Central pennant in 2011. He augmented the starting rotation with the notable acquisitions of Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, though the two best trades are seldom mentioned as significant contributors to the Brewers’ success.
During the All-Star Break, the Brewers and the Mets agreed to a deal that sent closer Francisco Rodriguez to Milwaukee in return for relievers Adrian Rosario and Danny Ray Herrera. The Mets desperately wanted to move Rodriguez and his contract, and that allowed Melvin to trade for him without sending anything of significance. K-Rod eventually made some waves when he told reporters that he expected to have an opportunity to close games in the Brewers’ bullpen, but ultimately, he provided quality innings as the set-up man for John Axford and compiled a 1.86 ERA in 31 appearances. His presence helped solidify a bullpen that was disjointed in the middle innings prior to his arrival.
The golden trade that Melvin orchestrated for last season occurred during spring training. He traded Cutter Dykstra to Washington in return for the much-maligned center fielder Nyjer Morgan. Despite concerns over his character at the outset of his tenure in Milwaukee, the 31-year-old outfielder blossomed amongst a loose clubhouse and quickly became a fan favorite. He hit .304/.357/.421 and was a four-win player for the Brewers, allowing the organization to push Carlos Gomez to a soft platoon role.
Morgan generated the best offensive numbers of his career with the Brewers last year. That success has now become the standard by which he will be evaluated throughout the remainder of his stint in Milwaukee, and some significant red flags suggest Brewers fans would be wise to lower the expectations for Morgan this upcoming season.
Line Drive Rate
Many people have suggested Morgan will regress this year because he got rather lucky in 2011. More specifically, people expect his lofty .362 BABIP to decline. Too often, however, BABIP is painted as a statistic that signifies how lucky a player got at the plate in a given season. A low BABIP indicates that a hitter experienced bad luck and should be expected to rebound. A high BABIP, on the other hand, is evidence of a prolonged stream of good luck that resulted in a higher number of hits than should have reasonably been expected.
Morgan may have enjoyed a high BABIP last year, but it was not largely due to good luck. Instead, the Brewers’ center fielder lined the baseball all over the field. His line drive rate was 25.7%. Only five players (min. 400 plate appearances) had a higher line drive percentage in 2011, and all five players posted a BABIP north of .325. Furthermore, the two players that legitimately possessed average-or-better speed (Michael Bourn and Michael Young) both had a BABIP higher than .360, just like Morgan. Luck? Maybe a little, but mostly line drives.
So, if Nyjer Morgan did not have his career-best season at the plate due to increased luck, why the concern?
The concern surrounds the question of sustainability. If Morgan’s line drive rate regresses to his career average of nearly 21%, his BABIP should drop (unless the aforementioned luck comes into play). That should lead to a drop in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. It should not drop off a cliff, but a five or six percent drop in line drives is significant over the course of a season.
Opposing teams should also shift Morgan more in the outfield this season. He does not take the baseball to the opposite field well at all, which should allow opposing teams to position their outfield better and potentially take away more base hits due to better positioning and preparation. One could say the same thing regarding infield shifts, but Morgan’s speed and bunt potential should prevent teams from utilizing an overshift with their infielders to account for Morgan’s extreme neglect of the left side of the diamond while at the plate.
The most alarming trend that continued to develop last season was the decreased plate discipline. Morgan posted the worst walk rate of his career, a paltry 4.4%, which was largely due to his inability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone. He swung at 34.1% of pitches out of the strike zone. While certainly not Vladimir Guerrero type O-Swing% numbers, the Brewers should still be concerned that Morgan has increased his O-Swing% to career-highs in each of the past two seasons. After all, a player with limited power can generally not survive at the major league level without the ability to lay off poor pitches and force opposing pitchers to throw something he can handle.
Swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone and making more contact on those pitches should also impact Morgan’s line drive rate. That is part of the reason his line drive rate was so impressive in 2011. He had a career-high line drive rate, despite a terrible walk rate and swinging at a ton of bad pitches. In my opinion, that does not seem sustainable.
Spring training stats do not always have predictive value. That is stated ad nauseum at this time of year. When the spring training statistics highlight pre-existing concerns, however, one should pause and take notice. With that being said, Nyjer Morgan has struck out eleven times this spring and only walked twice in eighteen games. Those are not desirable ratios at the plate.
Now that all of that is on the table, it seems an opportune time to state that Nyjer Morgan has a chance to still be effective with the bat this season. Yes, the line drive rate should regress. Yes, the plate discipline trends are undeniably disconcerting. Morgan should still see a steady diet of right-handed pitching this season, though. That could help mitigate the majority of the issues discussed in this article.
Throughout his career, Morgan has demolished right-handed pitching to the tune of .310/.363/.401 with a 24% line drive rate. Ron Roenicke will simply have to feast on opportunities to start Morgan against right-handers and limit his plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. The Brewers largely succeeded in that regard last season, pairing him up with Carlos Gomez in a platoon role.
Perhaps the strict adherence to that platoon aided in the overall success at the plate and his career marks prove to be sustainable. Perhaps he comes out this season and posts another monster line drive rate. We do not know what will ultimately come to be in 2012. What we can do, though, is point out historical trends that will affect future performance, and Nyjer Morgan has multiple trends that suggest his 2012 season will not be as successful as the one he enjoyed in 2011.