Since his quick burst of offense against the Cleveland Indians after his bout with the flu almost two weeks ago, Justin Morneau has been stuck in a punch-less morass the past three series, going 3-for-26 (.115) with just the lone extra base hit.
Sure, he’s coming off a concussion that kept him from baseball activities from July to February and he has dropped a rapid dozen pounds from the virus, but Morneau isn’t blaming his performance on either of those two items. Truthfully, he’s probably right. Though they certainly play an influential factor, his overall timing is slightly off keeping him from being the same hitter as last year.
In general Morneau is doing well with his plate discipline. His contact rate is about the same and he has even whittled down his strike outs. He is a tad more reluctant to work for a walk but the bigger problem is that he simply isn’t making the same hard contact as he did in 2010. His overall line drive rate has dropped significantly (from 22% to 16%) while Inside Edge’s data agrees with the assessment as their stats say his well-hit average down over 100 points (from .345 to .230).
Last year, Morneau thrived by using the entire field. The left-hander masher put up very impressive numbers while driving the ball to the big part of the field, hitting .446 with a .689 slugging percentage to center field. This season however his results, outside of pulling the ball, have been disappointing. In fact, he has hit safely just twice on 22 balls (.182) to center. What we see is a massive tail-off from his hearty line drive rate to center in 2010 (24%) to a new career low in 2011 (13%).
Despite hitting his first home run of the year off of Luke Hochevar this weekend, the Royals effectively silenced Morneau’s bat, holding him to two hits. Those that tuned into the Royals broadcast on Friday night caught ex-Royal and commentator Frank White revealing Kansas City’s plan of attack against the left-hander – something that may swiftly become a blueprint for retiring him unless he adjusts. White noted that the Royals wanted to work Morneau away due to his increased tendency to open up on the ball. True to form, Bruce Chen and the relief staff peppered Morneau with pitches away and he essentially got himself out.
Interestingly enough, MLB.com’s beat writer for the Royals, Dick Kaegel, had written on Monday that the franchise was finally evolving in terms of their attempts to study opponents. Instead of sending advance scouts out to on the road to study the upcoming opponents, the team was relying more on video footage. Let’s take a look at what the Royals’ revamped scouting department may have seen:
A year ago, during his torrent display of offense, he demonstrated excellent timing. In this specific match-up, you will see that Morneau does not get overzealous and attempt to yank the pitch. He stays back and his hips remain closed which allows him to hit the ball with authority to the left side of the field. Needless to say, this was a fairly regular occurrence for him. However, if you compare that to this year’s version, you see a slightly different Morneau that leaves him exposed:
Focusing on his hip in the 2011 clip, you can see it opening up and committing to pulling the ball despite being pitched away. Because of this, when Cleveland’s pitcher throws the ball to the outer-half of the zone Morneau is left with using only his upper body in his swing and limiting his ability to hit the ball anywhere besides the right side of the field. Therefore, even if he would have tried to go with the pitch, he would have been left with having to muscle the ball rather than driving it as he did in the 2010 clip. Instead of being laced to the left-center field region, he turns the ball over to the second base Orlando Cabrera for an easy out.
So even though he was able to generate a few hits in the series against the Indians – including driving the ball to the wall twice in the series – the Royals likely picked up on this and directed their pitching staff to hit the outer-half of the plate on him.
It was unreasonable to expect Morneau to return from his long layoff with just a handful of spring training at-bats without any glitches. Unfortunately, similar to his mechanics, the timing could not be any worse as seemingly ever other key player is struggling or hurt. Although progress is being made with each plate appearance, with the team dead-last in home runs and slugging, the Twins need him to find his 2010 swing again sooner rather than later.
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