Can Christopher Morel keep on raking for the Cubs?
Christopher Morel burst onto the scene for the Chicago Cubs with a compelling story, infectious enthusiasm, and a Stratomatic card (Google it, hatchlings) that would make even strong humans weep with joy. Morel’s emergence has provided a bright spot in a season thus far characterized by more failure than success. Indeed, as I write this the Cubs are two games behind the Pirates – a sentence that will make even strong humans weep with sorrow. Is Morel doomed to turn into a cultivar of winter squash? Or is there reason to believe this performance is sustainable?
Morel didn’t exactly emerge from nowhere; by the end of last year he was the organization’s 16th-best prospect, according to Fangraphs. But he’s never been on any of the major top 100 lists. Fangraphs tagged him with a Fair Value of 45, which translates roughly into a lower division starter or platoon player: “A grooved, long swing will likely limit Morel’s ability to make contact and prevent him from being a true everyday player.”
Well, maybe, but we haven’t seen that yet. In fact, Morel’s strikeout rate is below the major league average while his walk rate is above. Statcast sees a hitter with excellent zone judgment, swinging in the zone more often than the league and chasing less. Perhaps cognizant of the young hitter’s discipline, pitchers are throwing Morel more meatballs (middle-middle pitches) than the average hitter sees, and his bat is feasting on them at an above average rate. If he still has that long, grooved swing, his mound opponents have yet to exploit it.
Morel has just 97 plate appearances as of this writing. It may be true that everyone has 97 good plate appearances in them; the problem is that for the vast majority of would-be ball players, those 97 don’t come in a row. They are far too widely separated to allow the player to establish himself. But there is some evidence that Morel’s performance is more than just the outgrowth of lucky sequencing.
His strikeout and walk rates, as well as ISO, are all at or near professional career bests. The discipline and power regressions that most projections systems forecast for newly promoted players haven’t hit Morel, at least not yet. This looks like more than just a few lucky bounces or fortunate matchups; in fact, it looks like development.
Comparing Morel’s performance to other top hitters since his first major league appearance on May 17, what stand out is that he doesn’t wildly stand out. His K percent ranks 109th, walk percent is 44th, and ISO is 52nd. His 150 wRC+ is 48th, and his WAR is 30th. These are all good ranks, but they don’t scream “unsustainable fluke.”
Looking at his under-24 peers, a different picture emerges. He’s a (literally middling) ninth in K rate out of 18 such players with more than 90 plate appearances, but he’s fifth in walk rate, third in ISO, and first in wOBA. Those are excellent ranks, and, well just look at the names in that link. You’ll recognize just about all of them (sorry, Gilberto Celestino). It just isn’t easy to get 90 plate appearances before Flag Day if you’re under 24, and Morel is one of the few to achieve that so far this season.
So in this sense Morel is indeed an outlier. The other principal exhibit in the case against Morel is his BABIP of .362, which is fourth on that list of 17 prospects plus Gilberto Celestino, and almost certainly unsustainable. Part of that probably does involve lucky bounces and fortunate matchups. But part of it also involves the bullheaded way opposing pitchers have attacked him.
Morel does to fastballs what Rome did to Carthage; his wOBA on fastballs is .472. Against breaking and offspeed stuff, he’s pretty Carthiginian, with wOBAs of .303 and .214 respectively. So pitchers have started feeding him a steady and unwholesome diet of sliders to see if he can hit a pitch that has thus far made him look foolish.
Nope, no they haven’t. He continues to see nearly 50 percent fastballs, even though Morel has clearly demonstrated that throwing him a fastball anywhere near the strike zone is just about as responsible as tossing firecrackers into a desiccated canyon. This is the biggest single near-term risk to his performance: opposing pitchers will start taking him seriously and game-planning to attack what appears to be – in this small sample size – a fairly glaring weakness in his approach.
Cubs: You can expect Christopher Morel to start seeing more offspeed stuff
Morel has already passed his first test. The worst pitcher he’s faced in the majors is better than 90 percent of the pitchers he faced in the minors, and if anything he has continued to improve in The Show. More celebrated names, like Jared Kelenic, Bryson Stott and Vidal Brujan, have seen at least some of their ablative heat shielding flake off as they attempt to enter the MLB atmosphere.
But Morel’s next test will be at least as daunting. Filthy pitchers are going start throwing increasingly filthy pitches, and Morel will need to make substantial adjustments to avoid a return trip to The Hawkeye State. This is a man who has recovered from harrowing adversity at least twice: first after his gruesome injury, and second after his age 19 stint in low A, where he struck out 31 percent of the time, walked zero percent of the time and generated as much power as a rusting windmill.
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So I won’t bet against Morel, though even after successful adjustments his Strat card will still start looking a bit more like those of other ballplayers. But hey, that’s ok: there is, after all, no crying in baseball.