Blue Jays 2018: A KenMo Rebuttal

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 18: Kendrys Morales
TORONTO, ON - JUNE 18: Kendrys Morales /

Kendrys Morales is coming off a poor 2017.  Is his projected 2018 as bleak as some think?

My friend and colleague, Bob Ritchie, recently wrote an article in which he presented a pessimistic view of Kendrys Morales‘ chances for a rebound 2018.  Just for fun, and for the enjoyment of a good argument, here is my rebuttal.

Bob’s article makes several arguments, chief among them:

  1. Kendrys’ decline from 2015 is necessarily indicative of a long-term trend that will not reverse,
  2. Contact% is drop-the-mic critical for a hitter’s success,
  3. Strikeouts are the devil’s handiwork, and,
  4. Kendrys’ 2017 swinging strike, and contact percentages are unacceptably bad.

Let me address these in order.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

One-year decline

Once upon a time there was a player, considered a very good hitter.  In the year he turned 32, he put up a wRC+ in the top dozen in the AL.  But in his 33rd year, he dropped considerably – still above average, but no longer elite.  And in his 34th year, his hitting was only league average, and his plate discipline figures (O-Swing%, Contact%, SwStr%) were all substantially worse than prior years.  Writers were concerned, because he was a slow DH who provided little (if any) value with his glove.  Many thought his career was largely over.

Am I talking about Kendrys Morales in 2015-17?  Actually no – I was talking about David Ortiz in 2007-2009.  Ortiz went on to play seven more superb years with Boston, and is a possible future Hall of Famer.

Is Morales a second Ortiz?  No.  But can a player rebound at age 35 after one bad year?  Ask Big Papi.

Contact is king – or is it?

Kendrys’ contact percentage has never been elite, and it was lower in 2017 than in prior years.  Some might see this as critical, saying that if you can’t make contact then you can’t contribute.  I disagree.  In my view, contact is only one piece (albeit a significant one) of a larger hitting puzzle.

To illustrate the point, I took the players with the highest contact percentages in 2017 (300 PAs or more) and made up an all-contact all-star team.  Ready?

Catcher – Jonathan Lucroy.  First – Joe Mauer.  Second – Dustin Pedroia.  Third – D.J. LeMathieu.  Short – Andrelton Simmons.  OF – Ben Revere, Denard Span and Melky Cabrera.  DH – Joe Panik

Now, if you were a MLB pitcher, would this lineup strike fear into your heart?  I didn’t think so.

Just for fun, let’s do another all-star team.  This time, using the players with the highest rate of 95mph exit velocities in 2017 without considering contact rates or any other stat.

Catcher – Alex Avila.  First base – Paul Goldschmidt.  Second – Joey Gallo (ok, I am cheating a bit – I have no 2B). Third – Ryan Zimmerman.  Short – Manny Machado.  Outfield – Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz.  DH – Miguel Cabrera (or Khris Davis or  Miguel Sano or Mike Zunino)

Five of the top 25 hitters in the majors by 2017 wRC+, including two of the top 3.   A bit more intimidating?

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Strikeouts are evil

Analysts have debated for years whether a strikeout is better or worse than a ground out.  A strikeout adds no value – it can not in itself advance the runner, or (generally) benefit from an error.  But it can also not cause any further damage, such as a double play.

There exists a sabermetric tool called linear weights, which assigns a value (measured in runs) to each batter outcome.  The latest figures I have seen value an AL strikeout at -0.284 runs, a groundout at -0.303 and a fly out at -0.269.  It follows that it is better for the team for a batter to strike out than to ground out.  And remember that these figures are calculated based on the average player.  Kendrys is (spoiler alert: understatement coming) slower than average, so the risk of his hitting into a double play is greater than average.  KenMo is therefore the ideal student for the Josh Donaldson School of Hitting – hit it hard and in the air.  If you strike out, too bad – that is the price you pay.

Kendrys’ stats are ugly

The problem with looking at stats relative to league averages, as I pointed out above relative to Morales’ speed, is that few players are average.

Let’s try a different comparison.

In 2017, despite a poor year, Morales hit 46.3% of the balls he made contact with at 95 mph or higher.  That was 13th best in the majors among players with 200 PAs (for the Devastating Dozen – the 12 players who finished ahead of KenMo – see my “95mph all stars” above).  In most cases,  the Dozen had worse plate discipline than league average.  In fact, the Dozen averaged a swinging strike percentage of 13.8% (Kendrys had13.3%) and a contact percentage of 69.8% (Kendrys 73%).

The reality is that this level of power generally comes at a price, and that price manifests itself in more strikeouts and (accordingly) lower contact.  By the “Dozen” standards, Kendrys’ contact is not only acceptable but above average.

Next: Blue Jays send eight to the Arizona Fall League

The bottom line

Predicting the future, even only a single season in advance, is difficult.  It is entirely possible that Kendrys Morales will crash and burn again in 2018, as he did in 2017.  But in my view, the probability of a rebound back into the ~120 wRC+ range that he has maintained over the last seven years is higher than the probability that he will remain at his 2017 97 wRC+ level.  The potential for him to do significantly better – such as the 150 adjusted wRC+ calculated by fangraphs – is still very real.