Kendrys Morales has some big shoes to fill in the Toronto Blue Jays lineup
The reaction to the Blue Jays’ signing of Kendrys Morales has been drawn out over two slow months, paralleled with the fruitless pursuit of Edwin Encarnacion.
Morales is an extremely limited player, but as a switch hitter with power, a great deal will be asked of him offensively. Optimists are few and far between when it comes to the 33-year-old Cuban, but a look at two critical factors suggests that Morales could actually excel in his new home.
1. Downsizing: The hottest real estate trend for power hitters
The primary source of Kendrys Morales’ offensive value to the Blue Jays will be the home run ball. He’ll be tasked with replacing some of the offense lost from Edwin Encarnacion and potentially Jose Bautista, and he’ll get some help from his new stadium.
ESPN’s Park Factors data from the past five seasons shows that Morales’ old home in Kansas City, Kauffman Stadium, had an average ranking of 7.4 out of the MLB’s 30 stadiums when it comes to pure runs scored. Surprisingly, Toronto’s home ‘Dome averaged a rank of 11.6 over those five seasons. Morales’ value, however, won’t often be measured in singles and manufactured runs.
When it comes to home runs alone, the move benefits Morales greatly. Kauffman ranked 22nd or lower in Park Factors each of the past four seasons. Toronto ranked 17th in 2016, 15th in 2015, and 3rd the two seasons prior.
In 2016, Kauffman Stadium saw just 1.91 home runs hit per game, the lowest total in the American League outside of the cavernous Oakland Alameda Coliseum. The Rogers Centre, on the other hand, saw 2.51 home runs per game. While that still ranks close to the middle of the pack, it’s slightly above the American League average of 2.44 per game (2.18/G in the NL), and is significantly higher than in Kansas City.
Kauffman’s average home run was 413.1 feet in 2016, the longest in Major League Baseball. Why? Because if the ball was going to leave Kauffman, it had to be deep.
The average Rogers Centre home run was still big at 404.1 feet, but shorter blasts to the corners kept that average well below Kauffman’s ballooned number.
Here is how the two outfield fences compare with Toronto’s shorter wall in red compared to Kansas City’s in black:
The most significant difference between the two parks comes in the corner outfields, especially where Kauffman Stadium’s walls bulge out from the foul poles while the Rogers Centre’s walls come straight out at a hitter-friendly angle.
Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park will be even more forgiving in those areas.
Below, look at the spray chart of Morales’ 2016 season overlaid on the Rogers Centre instead of Kauffman Stadium. Deep hits to centre field aren’t likely to find different fates between the two parks, but in the corners, there are several deep fly ball outs or extra-base hits that would have cleared the wall in Toronto.
Because of this, referring to Morales as a 30-homer bat in 2016 (and 22 the year prior) comes with an asterisk (as it does with any player moving parks). It is conceivable that, if Morales took the majority of his 618 plate appearances in Toronto, Boston, and New York, that his home run total would be comfortably in the mid-30s while his 93 RBI would like have touched 100 (which isn’t a number that should be given attention, but the sticker value of 100 RBI is still built into the minds of baseball fans).
This move from Kauffman Stadium to the Rogers Centre works as a convenient surface-level argument in favour of Morales’ 2017 power numbers, but a deeper look at his batted ball data further suggests that playing in Kansas City kept Morales’ home run numbers capped.
2. Exit Velocity
Morales consistently hits the ball very hard, which is something that Statcast now allows us to measure across recent seasons.
Exit velocity, measured in the miles-per-hour speed that a ball leaves the bat, is a valuable way to project a hitter between different hitting environments or seasons. At the same time, it can help to make sense of why a hitter is performing poorly or if they’re simply experiencing a stretch of bad luck.
For example, if a player hits .100 over two weeks with an average exit velocity of 81.0 MPH, then they are making poor contact and the dip in production is likely all on them. If they’re hitting .100 with an average exit velocity of 96.0 MPH, however, there’s a much higher chance that the slump is just the result of well-hit balls finding gloves.
2016: Morales’ average exit velocity in 2016 was 94.9 MPH. Among players with at least 100 batted balls, that ranked him ninth in all of Major League Baseball behind the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, and Gary Sanchez. It also ranked him above Bautista, Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson.
On fly balls and line drives specifically, Morales’ average exit velocity ranked 21st in the league. His maximum exit velocity on the season — 115.6 MPH on a 456-foot home run off the Cardinals’ Tyler Lyons — ranks 19th in max velocities.
2015: Morales ranked 20th league-wide in average exit velocity at 92.7 MPH, this time behind Bautista and Donaldson but still ahead of Encarnacion. His fly ball / line drive velocities and maximum velocity were not as high as in 2016, but still hit impressive levels.
Here is a trio of Morales’ home runs from 2015, as measured by Statcast.
A consistent base
Morales is not Mark Trumbo or Chris Carter. While he might lack the lightning-in-a-bottle power to make a run at 50 home runs, his fundamentals and consistency give him a much safer floor as a power bat.
More importantly, beyond Morales’ exit velocities staying strong, his PITCHf/x plate discipline metrics suggest that he is performing extremely consistently with his career averages when it comes to pitch selection and swing choices.
Morales swung at 34.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone in 2016, just slightly up from his career average of 32.6%. His rate of swinging at pitches inside the zone was within 1% of his career average.
For his career, Morales has made contact with the ball on 77.8% of his swings. In 2016? 77.9%.
If those numbers — or his strikeout and walk ratios — displayed extreme outliers from year to year, then there would be a legitimate reason to worry that Morales’s value is prone to unpredictable swings. That does not appear to be the case.
Morales’ 2014 season will be raised as an outlier by some, but it is fair to dismiss that from consideration as Morales did not appear in his first game until June after a declined qualifying offer and a greatly misjudged market sunk his free agent appeal entirely. Sound familiar?
What this means for Morales and the Blue Jays
None of this changes the other realities that the Blue Jays will face with morales. He turns 34 in June, has little defensive value at first base, and is one of the league’s poorest base runners.
These are not surprises to the Blue Jays, though. Morales is being brought in to provide offensive pop, and if he chips in a drop of value elsewhere, that’s simply a bonus.
The two sides inked a three-year deal, so Morales isn’t going anywhere soon, and with the right lineup around him that is not necessarily a bad thing. In an alternate universe where Edwin Encarnacion was never a Blue Jay, the addition of Morales would be met with more of a shrug than it has been. If Morales can be viewed in a vacuum rather than as a “non-Enarnacion replacement”, however, the optics of this become a little easier to digest
His value is unlikely to significantly exceed that $11 million annual salary, but between the beneficial change of scenery and a steady output of hard-hit balls, Morales could be more valuable to the Blue Jays than many expect.