JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Justin Morneau

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: Justin Morneau
Justin Morneau 1B 27.0 24.4 25.7 1,603 247 5 .281/.348/.481 120
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Like his longtime teammate Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau won an MVP award, spent a stretch as a perennial All-Star, helped the Twins to a handful of division titles and all-too-brief playoff appearances — and had his career indelibly altered by a series of concussions. Though neither player was stopped in his tracks to the extent of former teammate Corey Koskie, who never again played in the majors after sustaining a severe concussion in 2006, both players suffered the lingering effects of multiple traumatic brain injuries, which compromised their performances but also helped to raise awareness within the sport.

Unlike Mauer, Morneau — a Canadian who grew up playing hockey, where he likely suffered the first of his several concussions — wasn’t on a Hall of Fame path when he got injured, and he actually recovered to win a batting title later in his career. Yet his career can be divided into everything that came before the July 7, 2010 collision of his head with the knee of Blue Jays second baseman John McDonald during a routine takeout slide, and what came after. Morneau hit for a 138 OPS+ from 2006 to the point of the injury while averaging 4.3 WAR over those 4 1/2 seasons. He managed just a 106 OPS+ over his six final seasons while totaling 5.5 WAR, only once topping 1.3, and not all of that can be chalked up to age-related decline.

“It’s something that will always be with me,” Morneau told ESPN’s Jim Caple in the spring of 2015. “I look at it like a pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery — every time he throws or his elbow gets sore or something happens, you’re going to go back to that.”

Five years later, looking back at his career, Morneau told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s LaVelle E. Neal III, “I never felt I was the same player after that, and it was really frustrating for me wanting to be a guy in the middle of the lineup everyone can count on and play every day and being healthy.”

Morneau was born on May 15, 1981 in New Westminster, British Columbia. His father, George, played hockey for the Brandon Wheat Kings, a junior team in the Western Hockey League, and attended the training camp of the Minnesota North Stars; he later served as a hitting coach for high school baseball and softball teams. His mother, Audra Chartland Morneau, played fast-pitch softball and taught school.

As a youngster, Morneau starred as a goalie for the New Westminster Royals and played baseball as well, not only winning New Westminster High School Athlete of the Year honors but catching for the Canadian national champion baseball teams in 1997 and ’98. Scouts were impressed by the 6-foot-4 lefty swinger’s hit tool and his raw power, but concerns about his cold-weather background and his defense bumped him down to the third round of the 1999 draft, where the Twins chose him after selecting another high school backstop, Rob Bowen, in the second round. They signed Morneau for a $290,000 bonus, less than half of what they gave Bowen, and just over 10% of what they gave first-round pick B.J. Garbe, who never made Triple-A, let alone the majors.

Morneau played 17 games for the Twins’ Gulf Coast League entry in 1999 and then 52 the following year; his sizzling .402/.478/.665 showing in the latter season — with 10 homers and just 18 strikeouts in 226 PA — as a 19-year-old led the Twins to promote him to their Rookie-level Elizabethton affiliate. Though he threw out 32% of would-be base thieves in 2000, the Twins began transitioning him from behind the plate, using him at both first base and right field. By the following year, he was a first baseman, and his .314/.389/.497 performance split between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain was impressive enough to land him 21st on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list heading into 2002.

Morneau made the list in the mid-teens two more times while climbing the ladder; his progress played a role in the Twins’ non-tendering David Ortiz in December 2002, though the team made other mistakes in handling the future Big Papi as well. Morneau got his first call to the majors in June 2003, when infielder Chris Gomez was injured, collecting a pair of singles off the Rockies’ Jason Jennings in his June 10 debut, then adding three more hits the next day. Generally serving as the designated hitter while Doug Mientkiewicz played first base, Morneau hit just .226/.287/.377 with four homers in 115 PA; he made a return trip to Triple-A Rochester in late July before being recalled again in September.

The Twins kept Morneau at Rochester for the first quarter of the 2004 season before recalling him in late May. He homered off the White Sox’s Neal Cotts in his second game back, added another off Victor Zambrano three days later, but was soon sent down to make room for Mauer, who had recovered from in-season knee surgery. Morneau had hit .292/.370/.542 in 23 PA, but according to an item in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Twins were “concerned about the way he is swinging the bat.” Via the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the team planned to give DH at-bats to Matthew LeCroy and Jose Offerman instead, which, yeesh.

Morneau didn’t return until after the All-Star break, but once he did, he continued to rake, hitting .271/.340/.536 (122 OPS+) with 19 homers in 312 PA and supplanting the struggling Mientkiewicz as the starting first baseman while helping the Twins win the American League Central. Though he had a pair of two-hit games in the Division Series against the Yankees, and even drove in a run against Mariano Rivera amid a Game 2-tying eighth-inning rally, the Twins fell in four.

Three weeks after the Twins were eliminated, Morneau underwent an appendectomy, the first of several health-related issues that would turn his 2005 into a forgettable campaign. After enduring chicken pox, pneumonia and pleurisy during the offseason, he suffered a concussion when he was hit in the head by a Ron Villone pitch on April 6. He missed 13 games, homered in his return, and hit a sizzling .405/.430/.759 through his first 20 games, but after getting static from manager Ron Gardenhire and some teammates when he sat due to bone spur in his left elbow in early June, his season unraveled; he finished at .239/.304/.437 (93 OPS+).

Even with a slow start to his 2006 season, Morneau bounced back in a major way. He homered 10 times in June, and added another eight in July, slugging .719 and driving in 52 runs across the two months. He finished with 34 homers and a .321/.375/.559 line, which placed him eighth in OPS+ (140), seventh in batting average, sixth in slugging percentage, and second in RBIs (130). He won AL MVP honors, edging Derek Jeter, 320-306, but in retrospect, his 4.3 WAR ranked just fourth on the Twins behind Johan Santana (7.6), Mauer (5.8), and Francisco Liriano (4.5). In fact, 18 players who received at least a single point in the AL MVP voting outdid him in WAR, but Morneau fit the award-winning mold of Big RBI on Playoff-Bound Team, hence the hardware.

The Twins won the AL Central in Morneau’s big year, but they were swept by the A’s in the Division Series. Morneau went 5-for-12 with a pair of homers, but it wasn’t enough.

Morneau hit 31 homers and made the AL All-Star team for the first of four straight times in 2007, though his season represented a significant step down in terms of OPS+ (122) and WAR (2.9). Nonetheless, he cashed in on his success, signing a six-year, $80 million extension with the Twins in January 2008. Despite dipping to 23 homers that year, he was much better all around (.300/.374/.499, 134 OPS+, 4.3 WAR), not that his value merited his finishing as the runner-up in the AL MVP voting behind Dustin Pedroia. At the All-Star Game festivities at Yankee Stadium, he won the Home Run Derby, beating out Josh Hamilton in the finals.

Morneau was similarly solid in 2009 (30 homers, 130 OPS+, 3.5 WAR) until a stress fracture in his back sidelined him in mid-September, preventing him from participating in the postseason after the Twins won the Central again. He was in the midst of the best season of his career in 2010 when he suffered his concussion, far better than his MVP-winning campaign: .345/.437/.618 (187 OPS+) with 18 homers and a career-high 4.7 WAR. For the first time, he had been voted as the starting first baseman for the upcoming All-Star Game.

His injury, suffered on the kind of takeout slide that would no longer be allowed under today’s rules, was nonetheless “a pretty innocent play,” as Twins president Dave St. Peter told Neal in 2020. “Looked like a play he’s probably done over 100 times,” said Mauer. “You go in there, you slide into second and try to break up a double play. And it kind of hit him the wrong way.”

Morneau initially thought he’d miss only a few games, not the remainder of the season. He’d wake up feeling good but by midday would need to isolate in a dark room, or deal with mood swings. “The physical is not fun,” he told Neal. “The mental is the thing that really wears on you over time, because it’s an unknown.”

Morneau’s injury wasn’t the only stimulus, but it did play a part in Major League Baseball adopting a concussion protocol for the 2011 season, giving teams guidance and flexibility in confronting such injuries. Morneau offered his insights at the time:

“The one thing you don’t want to do is put someone in a position the day after or two days later all of a sudden by saying, ‘Are you feeling OK?’… The worst thing you can do with a concussion is rush back to play. You’re diagnosed and you have a week and if it clears up like most people hope it does and they usually do, with most people it’s short-term, that’s the best-case scenario.”

Post-concussion syndrome was just one of the seemingly unending string of physical woes that limited Morneau to just 69 games and a 70 OPS+ in 2011. Here’s the litany that I assembled for his player comment in the Baseball Prospectus annual:

Morneau struggled from the outset, and went on the disabled list on June 10 due to swelling in his left wrist, a problem related to a herniated disc in his neck. He underwent surgery in late June, didn’t return until August 12, and played just 14 games before left shoulder soreness and lingering concussion symptoms — aggravated by a diving play at first base — sidelined him for the season. He underwent a trio of surgeries to remove a cyst in his left knee, a bone spur in his right foot, and to stabilize the left wrist.

With all that, Morneau mulled retirement in the spring of 2012, making his recovery to play 134 games a minor triumph, even if his 113 OPS+ and 1.2 WAR weren’t much to write home about. He dipped to a 102 OPS+ in 2013, but on August 31, with the end of his six-year contract approaching, he and Alex Presley were traded to the Pirates for a player to be named later (Duke Welker). Though Morneau wasn’t very productive, he did get to play regularly for a team that made the playoffs and won the NL Wild Card Game before falling to the Cardinals in the Division Series. Morneau went 7-for-24 in all, scoring four runs but failing to drive in any.

A free agent that winter, the 32-year-old signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with the Rockies. He received the blessing of fellow British Columbia native Larry Walker to wear no. 33, the only time Walker’s number was issued between his 2004 departure and last year’s festivities to honor the newly-inducted Hall of Famer. Though he missed time with a neck strain, Morneau turned in what was by far the best of his post-concussion seasons, hitting .319/.364/.496 with 17 homers, a 125 OPS+ and 3.4 WAR. With a bit of a nudge from Coors Field, where he hit .327/.363/.515, he took home the NL batting title, edging the Pirates’ Josh Harrison (.315) and Andrew McCutchen (.314). Rockies manager Walt Weiss sat Morneau for the final two games of the season, but defended the move, saying, “The way I look at it, the guy has experienced a career-threatening injury and if he’s in a position to win a batting title, I’m going to try to make sure he does. Anybody who has a problem with it, then their beef can be with me… It takes six months to win a batting title, not one day. ”

Unfortunately, Morneau suffered yet another concussion and a cervical neck sprain while diving for a ball on May 13, 2015. He didn’t return until September 4, playing in just 49 games. Though a strong September helped him finish with a .310/.363/.458 line, the Rockies declined their end of a $9 million mutual option.

After undergoing surgery on his left elbow in December — a problem that had apparently nagged him during the 2015 season — Morneau remained unsigned until the following June, when the White Sox, who had lost Adam LaRoche to a sudden retirement in the spring, signed him to a $1 million deal. He returned to the majors on July 15, but hit just .261/.303/.429 with six homers in 218 PA. Though he wasn’t ready to retire, he also wasn’t “willing to go down to Triple-A and ride the bus,” as he said on a radio appearance. After playing for Team Canada in the 2017 World Baseball Classic — his fourth time in the tournament — he sat out all of that season, then made his retirement official in January 2018, when he joined the Twins as a special assistant.

If not for his concussions, Morneau probably would have accomplished even more than he did. “I do occasionally go there,” Morneau told Neal in 2020 when asked if he thinks about what might have been. “And I try to get out of that place as fast as I can because it doesn’t do any good.” Still, he finished his career with four All-Star appearances, a pair of Silver Slugger awards (won in 2006 and ’08), and an MVP award, and last year he was honored as a member of the Twins Hall of Fame. It isn’t Cooperstown, but it will have to do.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Great writeup on one of my favorites, Jay. Well done. Sorry to nitpick, but the writer you mention a few times is LaVelle E Neal III. You added an ‘e’ at the end of his last name, and even called him O’Neale late. He’s a pretty accomplished guy so I just think it’s important to get that right.

Thanks again. Great writeup.