Over the course of a season, the sequence of a player’s production shouldn’t matter. The player who goes 0 for his first 50 and then 50 for his next 50 will produce the same number of runs (a lot) as the player who reverses that sequence.
But a recent minor league call-up who goes 0 for his first 50 won’t get a chance to go 50 for his next 50. He’ll be sent down. In this, if nothing else, Christopher Morel has been fortunate in his misfortune. Morel is 16 for his last 95, good for a .168 average. Batting average doesn’t mean as much as it used to, but it is still a useful performance indicator at the extremes. It is nearly impossible to be a productive non-pitcher if you’re hitting .168.
Had Morel gone 16 for his first 95 the Chicago Cubs would not have given him a chance to remain an every day player. While his lineup appearances have become a bit spottier recently, there is every reason to believe he can be an opening day starter in 2024 if he can fix the problem causing that low recent batting average: strikeouts. Since August 1, Morel has 32 Ks against just three walks. This is far worse than Morel’s next most whiffly month; in June Morel had still scary 42-to-7 K/BB ratio.
Morel’s recent struggles will remind Cubs fans of another athletic infielder with a big personality and holes in his swing to match, and indeed the K-Monster has plagued Javier Baez again this year in Detroit. Both Morel and Baez miss pitches out of the zone over 50 percent of the time, against the MLB average of 46.7 percent. But there the similarity ends.
Baez actually swings at a lot of pitches outside the zone: he chases over 46 percent of the time. Morel’s chase rate is just 28.3 percent, nearly spot on the MLB average. This is rather remarkable. A young player who had some strikeout issues in the minors and spent little time at Triple-A before hitting The Show is already achieving a major-league average chase rate. Whatever Morel’s problems are, they are not Baez’ problems.
Morel’s main issue is that, while he knows the zone well, he fails within it. Morel’s zone contact rate is just 66.1 percent. Baez’ is 77.9, and the major league average is 82. Morel is getting eaten alive in the strike zone. And thanks to Statcast, we know where in the zone he’s getting eaten. It’s at the top, as you can see from his K % and Whiff % charts.
This looks like he’s struggling with high heat, and his other Statcast numbers confirm that. In August Morel has whiffed over 50 percent of the time on fastballs (for Baez the figure was around 35 percent). The fastball at the high and outside corner appeared to be particularly difficult for Morel. He whiffed on pitches in that area 70 percent of the time.
In some sense his is a harder problem to solve than Baez’. Javy’s bugbear is the slider out of the zone low and away. In theory he could solve this by simply not swinging at those pitches, though admittedly the words “in theory” and “simply” are doing a lot of work in that sentence.
Morel can’t just stop swinging at pitches that are strikes in any case. Pitchers will keep pouring fastballs into that top third unless and until he forces them to go elsewhere. Part of the solution might involve Morel being a bit more selective with these pitches, and there is some evidence that he might already be trying to do so.
While his swings at the up and away pitch fail frequently, he doesn’t swing at those pitches very often, suggesting he understands laying off at least some of those pitches could help him turn things around. And as noted above, Morel seems to have good pitch recognition skills and a good feel for the zone. Perhaps improved mechanics can build on this already sound foundation.
Cubs: Christopher Morel needs to do more damage to the high heat
In recent years hitters have evolved to accept more bad outcomes in exchange for a few more devastatingly good ones. If that pattern holds for Morel, he will fight for control of the upper third not by spraying high fastballs all over the field, but by utterly destroying a few more of them than he does now, thus making pitchers think twice about pitching him there.
Morel will have a whole offseason to work with the Cubs’ growing hitter development operation, who undoubtedly have a lot more detailed information about Morel’s swing than is publicly available. We saw what kind of hitter Morel could be in May and (to some extent) June. An early test for Jed Hoyer’s don’t-call-it-a-Hitter-Lab will be if it can help Morel back to those sunlit uplands next season.