Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Morneau's Early Struggles

With 52 games in the books, the Twins are approaching the one-third mark in their 162-game regular season schedule. It seems an appropriate time to check in on the player we expected to be the team's top individual storyline in the early part of the season: Justin Morneau.

The good news is that Morneau has been able to play. He's started all but seven of the Twins' games over the first two months, and is on pace to make over 600 plate appearances.

Sadly, the good news pretty much stops there. While Ron Gardenhire has continued to trot him out at the cleanup spot based on his past reputation as an elite power-hitting run producer, Morneau is hitting just .242 with a .626 OPS. He has managed two homers and 17 RBI while hitting .186 with runners on base. His performance thus far would put him in line for less than 10 home runs and 55 RBI in a full-season workload, which would obviously represent the worst production of his career by a pretty wide margin.

Obviously, something is wrong with the former MVP. The pertinent questions are what and why.

Studying him from afar this season, my observation is that his reactions seem to have dulled. Razor-sharp reflexes, forged in part through years of deflecting screaming pucks as a hockey goalie, were a principal strength for the slugger prior to last year's season-ending concussion. They've been conspicuously amiss this year.

It's shown in the field; while he's still competent out there he's not the defensive asset he once was. Hard grounders he used to snare routinely have escaped his reach, and we've seen him scoop far fewer low throws than in the past despite lousy infielders giving him ample opportunity.

It's also shown at the plate, and that's been more troubling. If the Twins are to return to contention next year they're going to need Morneau mashing and up to this point he's not shown that he has it in him.

It's not that Morneau looks completely overmatched at the plate. He's not striking out a ton, which is encouraging and indicates that his hand-eye coordination remains intact. The problem is his pitch selection. He's swinging at way too many balls outside of the zone -- a career-high 33.9 percent, according to FanGraphs.

Pitchers have adjusted and are offering fewer strikes -- 41.5 percent, lowest rate of his career -- but Morneau has been unable to adjust. He's walked in only 5.6 percent of his plate appearances this year, which is bordering on Delmon Young territory.

The first baseman is simply chasing too often, and while he's making contact at a solid rate, it just isn't the same kind of authoritative contact we've grown accustomed to seeing from him. He's trying to pull too many outside pitches, golfing for too many low breaking balls. Late on heaters, early on offspeed. He just isn't reading the ball well.

His natural talent has allowed him to stay afloat in spite of these issues (Morneau is  actually hitting .289 over his last 20 games) but until his pitch recognition improves he won't return to being the dominant force he was prior to injury.

I'll check in on Morneau again after another third of the season has gone by, and hopefully by then he'll have shown the kind of improvement that suggests his immense early struggles have merely been the result of rust from a prolonged layoff. I prefer not to think about the alternative.

It can hardly be understated overstated how important Morneau's ability to find his old form is to this team's future.


Jack said...

I have a feeling that Morneauu's concussion has left more of a mark on his performance than analysts (and myself) expected. I do doubt that Morneau's tremendous slump is due to just rust, however I think Morneau can rebound this year after the All-Star break. But I do have doubts that he will return to his old form this year, especially with the disabled Mauer, and the weak start and injury issues of Delmon Young affecting his rbi and run production.

Maija said...

It's worth noting Morneau's other issues this spring that likely have contributed to his performance. First, there was that nasty flu bug. His weight loss from that was pretty noticeable, and I suspect that kind of illness didn't help his strength and getting back on track right away. Second, the Star Tribune reported 10 or so days ago that Morneau is actually playing with a neck injury that might require post-season surgery. He got cortisone shot and seems to be doing better.

Morneau says concussion symptoms haven't been bothering him, so I want to believe that. I hope (and think) it may be more of a combination of just trying to get back into the rhythm of playing along with these other issues.

Ed Bast said...

All I can say about Morneau is, at least he's playing through it. Justin at 1/2 production/health is still better than 95% of this roster, which is something our Hometown Hero can't seem to grasp (or is too self-absorbed to care about).

Michael said...

"It can hardly be understated how important Morneau's ability to find his old form is to this team's future."

I think you mean 'overstated', Nick. Given that the importance of Morneau's return to form is very high, it could very easily be understated.

Nick N. said...

Oops, right you are Michael. Fixed.

USAFChief said...

I still believe (as I have for a while now) that Morneau isn't over the concussion symptoms. Slowed reactions and reduced hand-eye coordination show up in his play at first base.

Also, IMO his basic problem at the plate is his inability to catch up to fastballs. This forces him to cheat, resulting in opening up, guessing, and a host of problems that we've all seen from almost every player at some point in their baseball career.

The basic thing that ends most players baseball careers is an inability to hit the average pitcher's fastball for whatever level they're playing. For some players, that's in little league. For some players, that's at the college level. A few very talented players get all the way to the majors and can still catch up, until age starts robbing them of their skills.

Until/unless Morneau recovers his previous reaction time and hand-eye coordination that allowed him to just react to fastballs and still catch up, rather than having to guess fastball and start his swing early, he's not going to get significantly better. Let's hope he can do that.

Mike said...

Well, I agree that Morneau hasn't given us a whole lot of reasons to get excited this year, but I think you have to look at how he has improved as the year has gone on.

I'll fully acknowledge that even the May numbers aren't good, but in comparing his April numbers with his May numbers, his BA has gone up 31 points, his slugging has gone up 55 points, his OPS has gone up 58 points, and went from 0 homeruns to 2.

Coming into the season, I figured it would probably take him until about the all-star break to have a chance at coming back into form. I certainly didn't think he'd be there by this point in the season

That, and I think it's important, as Nick points out, that he seems to be pressing. I think he wants to see the Morneau of old more than the fans want to see the Morneau of old. Eventually, I have to figure he'll calm himself down and sit back on some pitches, drawing more walks and hitting more hitter's pitches. Stopping pressing will probably help more than anything

Matt said...

He's working his tail off, so it seems, and that's all we can realistically ask for from this guy. Missing all that time and not coming back to form quickly is a mental drain and that's got to be effecting him, too.
If he strings a couple of 3-4, 4-4games together and slaps a few out of the yard, he'll be on his way.
Even though he and Nathan have struggled to get back to form (and still aren't there), at least they're out there working at the ML level. Midway Joe, where are you?

Mike said...

Someone has to post it- this was another ironically timed entry, Nick. A very nice 2HR night for Morneau (so far).