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Selectivity and connectivity propelling Morneau’s monster start

  • Blog Post by: Parker Hageman
  • May 24, 2010 - 1:37 AM

Without question, Justin Morneau is off to the best start of his career. He has been hitting pitchers so hard that he is probably violating some aspect of the Geneva Convention.

What has made Morneau so good in 2010? Almost every ball that the Twins first baseman connects with is on a violent trajectory but at the same time he is making opposing pitchers labor in almost every plate appearance. Morneau told Sid Hartman that he was making a concerted effort to not press too hard in the batter’s box:  
 
"Right now I'm trying to be patient, take what they give me and not make something out of an at-bat that isn't there. With [Michael] Cuddyer, [Jim]Thome, [Delmon] Young and all of those guys in the lineup hitting behind me, I feel if I get on base they can hit a home run just as easily as me swinging at a bad pitch and blooping something in."
 
The numbers certainly confirm Morneau’s testament. Compared to past seasons, he’s shown schoolmarm-ish discipline. Now an established veteran of nearly a decade, Morneau has been selective on pitches both outside and inside the strike zone while keeping his bat on his shoulder more:
 

Morneau’s Plate Discipline:
OOZ swing%
IZ swing%
Overall swing%
2010
27.0
62.5
41.9
2009
29.4
72.5
48.9
2008
30.3
66.6
47.6

After chasing almost 30 percent of pitches out of the zone in 2008 and 2009, he’s trimmed the fat down to below the league’s average through almost two months of the season. Of course, pitchers have enabled this newfound discipline by pirouetting around the strike zone, attempting to avoid his heavy lumber by bending and changing speeds. In the past, a younger Morneau may have expanded the zone for the pitcher by reaching for an inferior pitch. This year’s model is swinging on his own terms which have translated to more favorable counts and a higher walk rate.
 
Likewise, the decision to throw fewer fastballs and even fewer strikes in general is presumably an attempt to tangle with the hitters down the order from Morneau rather than challenge the league’s best hitter. While the logic is sound in theory, in practice however this has been extremely advantageous for the Twins. First, this off-speed recourse has a rather nasty side-effect: Morneau is hitting it at a very good .392 clip with six of his 11 home runs coming off of non-fastball offerings. Secondly, the decision to pitch around Morneau has ultimately led to more runs. Coming into Sunday’s game, Morneau has been issued 33 free passes. On five of those occasions, he eventually scored.   
 
In addition to abstaining from the wayward pitches and embracing the higher dosage of off-speed stuff, Morneau has been increasingly particular about his in-zone pitches as well, taking more pitches for strikes. With this added quality-control, he has been able to hone in on his proverbial “pitch”. This has translated into more squarely hit balls.
 

Morneau’s batted balls:
Line Drive%
Ground Ball%
Fly Ball%
2010
23.9
25.6
50.4
Career
18.7
40.6
40.7

After beating the ball into the ground at a career 40 percent rate, he’s elevating it more this year – shooting more fly balls and line drives around the park instead of towards the turf. While one would like to see the grounders exchanged for line drives, as fly balls are typically the most frequent of the three to be converted into an out, Morneau has been exercising a fly ball BABIP nearly a 100 points higher than the league and his career average. Also, the depressed ground ball rate has also kept him from hitting into any double-plays in ’10 despite having baseball’s second-highest at-bats in double-play situations (48) behind teammate Michael Cuddyer (50).
 
Aside from the batted ball levels which may not be sustainable throughout the season’s duration and eventually regress back towards his career norms, clearly Morneau has implemented a sound approach at the plate and is capitalizing on it whenever he pulls the trigger. If the organization can refrain from wearing him out at the end of the year and keep him from his second-half swoon, Morneau could be a runaway for AL MVP.

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