What can the Brewers expect in year two of Nyjer Morgan?

Looking back at the 2011 season, the first thing a lot of folks will remember is Nyjer Morgan. Between his propensity for hitting in the clutch, his propensity for hitting every other time as well, his awesomely bizarre interviews, and the celebration currently known as Beast Mode, Morgan became the face of a team that became the face of forty years’ worth of Brewer baseball for many fans.

With the 2012 Brewers already looking quite different, one of many questions people might have surrounds his ability to do it again. Morgan’s 2011 performance was great, but he is also one year removed from a posting .633 OPS with Washington, where fans who previously loved his personality suddenly found him very annoying as soon as he stopped hitting. Also, between his age (he’ll be 31 this year), up-and-down numbers, and lack of offensive secondary skills, there’s a lot of reason to wonder which season was closer to his true skill level, as well as a lot of uncertainty as to what next year will bring. We’re going to look at both today, looking at things that might have changed for Morgan last year and what we can expect going forward.

First, it’s worth noting that Morgan’s better production seems to have come with a change in approach: Last year, Morgan suddenly started putting quite a bit fewer balls on the ground (his GB% fell to 44.9%, compared to 52.7% in 2010 and 51.4% for his career), while seeing a corresponding spike in line drive rate (always a good thing) as well as a few more fly balls. Given this, it’s no surprise Morgan saw a healthy increase in pop (he nearly doubled his isolated power from 2010) and a better batting average, but whether or not the more air-based approach will carry over is another story. Though it’s quite possible that Morgan adjusted his approach or the Brewers coaches tinkered with his swing, it’s also something we will never know as fans. So, until the temptation to ask Morgan about it via Twitter gets too great to resist, we’ll just have to take comfort in the fact that there seems to be more to his improved numbers than mere smoke and mirrors.

(Not-So-Quick Aside: The first thing a lot of people are going to point to is Morgan’s rather high BABIP (.362), this figure doesn’t seem like it will fall as sharply as you would first think: Most expected BABIP calculators out there estimate a BABIP in the .340-.345 range, and Morgan’s actual career BABIP is almost 20 points higher than his expected one.)

Upon arriving in Milwaukee, Morgan also enjoyed another great advantage:  A more favorable role. Put into a centerfield platoon with Carlos Gomez, Morgan faced right-handed pitchers (who he has hit a career .310/.363/.401 off of) almost exclusively, enjoying the dual benefit of almost never having to hit off of a southpaw (.201/.288/.270 career). Thus, it would appear that a significant part of the improved numbers we saw from Morgan last year were the result of more favorable playing-time distribution. (We can check this by plugging Morgan’s career splits to his 2011 playing time numbers, and it seems to hold up. The difference in playing time is worth about 20 points of OPS.) This only accounts for part of Morgan’s improvement on his career norms, but as long as Carlos Gomez is around, his numbers (and his team) will reap the rewards of him being in the situation where he is most successful.

While last season brought almost nothing but good on the field for Morgan, and this post has reflected that so far, there are also plenty of reasons to temper your optimism. Various DL trips and day-to-day maladies have caused Morgan to miss 85 games over the last three years, and they will probably persist as long as he continues to play as hard as he does. Morgan is also going to be 31 next year, well into the the phase where one would expect his skills to begin declining. This is even more disconcerting when you realize Morgan’s two most important skills – a high batting average and outstanding outfield defense – could erode away with the loss of half a step. This would be less of a problem if Morgan had some secondary skills to fall back on, but with last year’s four homers being a career high and his walk rate at half the league average, it’s easy to see how things could just as easily collapse.

I’d like to think there’s good information in the last few paragraphs, but I’m also assuming “Morgan could hit like he did last year, but he could also be terrible” is a conclusion all of you could have arrived at without this post. So (you had to know this was coming), we’re going to see if projections can provide a clearer picture:

AB

AVG

OBP

SLG

ZiPS

451

.266

.324

.353

Bill James

445 .288 .345 .362

RotoChamp

405 .281 .343 .378

Marcel

413

.279

.329

.371

A few thoughts:

  • Of the systems we used, only Bill James and RotoChamp account for expected playing time (thus, the platoon issue we discussed earlier). I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that these two are the most optimistic on Morgan holding onto last year’s performance.
  • There is some variation, but the systems more or less expect Morgan to split the difference between his 2010 and 2011. Using basic runs created, Morgan is projected to be between -6.5 and .5 runs above average, compared to -14 in 2010 and 10 in 2011.

If Morgan is a few runs below average at the plate, his speed and defense still make him a solidly above-average regular in center, well worth the $2.35 million he stands to earn this year. That’s a very valuable player, but one that may be wrongly be seen as a bit of a disappointment, given how incredibly good and fun his 2011 was. In all likelihood, Morgan is going to remain a very effective player, but probably a bit short of the one who made expectations so high in the first place.

(Note: ZiPS projections are from Baseball Think Factory, Bill James and RotoChamp are from Fangraphs, and the Marcel system was created by Tangotiger.)

Quantcast