Logan Morrison, and the Twins’ Great Advantage

Logan Morrison is signing with the Twins. It’s a one-year guarantee, worth $6.5 million, but there’s also an $8-million vesting option for 2019. Morrison turns 31 years old in August. It’s only natural to compare him to Yonder Alonso. Alonso turns 31 years old in April. He signed a couple months ago with the Indians, for a two-year guarantee, worth $16 million. There’s also a $9-million vesting option for 2020. Within the same market, Alonso did a little better than Morrison did. Maybe that’s not surprising — they’re different players! But then, are they, really?

Both Morrison and Alonso are lefty-hitting first basemen. Morrison is mostly going to DH with Minnesota, but that’s because Joe Mauer is already there. This past year, Morrison broke out at the plate, to the tune of a 130 wRC+. Alonso also broke out at the plate, to the tune of a 132 wRC+. Those marks were supported by the underlying Statcast measures, but both Morrison and Alonso were better in the first half than in the second. And, in case you weren’t paying attention, both Morrison and Alonso had their breakouts driven by the same adjustment.

Between 2014 and 2016, Morrison posted a 99 wRC+, and a 1.4 WAR. Alonso, meanwhile, posted a 96 wRC+, and a 1.3 WAR. Their expected wOBAs on record were virtually identical. Alonso, you might remember, made a point of trying to hit more fly balls. Morrison did the same thing. The effects were dramatic. There are 234 players who batted at least 250 times in both 2016 and 2017, and here are the five biggest decreases in ground-ball rate:

  1. John Jaso, -18.6%
  2. Jed Lowrie, -13.1%
  3. Logan Morrison, -10.9%
  4. Yonder Alonso, -10.2%
  5. Travis d’Arnaud, -10.1%

Morrison dropped his grounders from 44% to 33%. Alonso dropped his grounders from 44% to 34%. Contact went down, but homers piled up, as Morrison and Alonso both became legitimate threats in the middle of the order. Now, you might be wondering: Why did neither player sign for more than they did? Clearly, the league doesn’t buy all the way in. Yonder Alonso projects for a 116 wRC+. Logan Morrison projects for a 115 wRC+. Eric Hosmer projects for a 116 wRC+. Carlos Santana projects for a 124 wRC+, but he was also worse at the plate than Morrison and Alonso just were. I think there’s a little bit of nervousness, that first-half Morrison and Alonso were flukes.

I’d understand if that were true, because the track records just aren’t there. Maybe the second halves just show that pitchers managed to adjust. Second-half Alonso made worse contact quality, while second-half Morrison just made less contact in general. It’s absolutely possible that Morrison and Alonso will go right back to being simply underwhelming, average hitters. But there’s a real chance the Indians and Twins will end up thrilled with themselves. The changes in approach, at least, are real, and there’s seldom any reason for a hitter like Morrison or Alonso to put the ball on the ground. We certainly could’ve seen real breakouts. In which case, these two teams were right to pounce.

Relative to last season, Morrison is getting a raise. Alonso is getting a raise as well, and you can’t feel too bad about these modest contracts, because while both players might’ve expected the market to yield stronger offers, these are still opportunities to start, and to start for competitive ballclubs. A year ago, both guys might’ve been on their last chance. Their careers, then, have been extended. Why did Alonso end up with the greater guarantee? Maybe it’s just a matter of the market being different in December. Maybe Alonso is considered the superior defender. Maybe Alonso is perceived to have the better makeup. Perhaps Morrison could’ve gotten that contract, if he’d signed first. Instead, he could now be a bargain for the Twins.

The player who’s displaced here is Kennys Vargas. Vargas had been in line for at least semi-regular at-bats, but now his roster spot is in jeopardy, with Morrison sliding in as the DH and as the backup to Mauer. Although Vargas has shown clear flashes of his massive power potential, he also has a career wRC+ of exactly 100, and he’s not coming off a season like Morrison had. Morrison makes the Twins better, immediately. Although the team hadn’t exactly set out to find another left-handed hitter, they couldn’t pass up this opportunity. The Twins are at that position where every single additional win is worth several millions of dollars.

It’s not just that the Twins made the playoffs a year ago. Sure, you always want to build off a season like that. But the Twins also have another advantage, something other teams can’t contend with. Take a look at our projected standings. The Twins show up at 83-79. That’s the seventh-best record in the American League. They’re four games behind the Blue Jays, and they’re one game behind the Angels. They’re just fending off the Mariners and Rangers.

Already, you can tell that the Twins are in position to add. But there’s something that projected-standings page doesn’t account for. And that’s the strength of every team’s schedule. Mostly, in baseball, you expect for schedules to be pretty similar across the board. Even with unbalanced schedules, the landscapes are generally fairly even. Yet the Twins have an opening in front of them. The worst projected team in the AL East is the Orioles, at 75-87. The worst projected team in the AL West is the A’s, at 79-83. The worst projected team in the AL Central is the Royals, at 66-96. Then there are the White Sox, also at 66-96. And then there are the Tigers, at 70-92. The AL Central has the three worst teams in the American League, and it’s not even close. They’re three of the four worst teams in baseball.

Yeah, the White Sox could over-achieve, because of all the young talent. Sure, the Tigers might get a few veterans bouncing back. Yet all three teams know it’ll be a rough season. In the East, the Orioles have refused to sell, and the Rays are trying to tread water. In the West, no one’s given up. The Twins will have a significant schedule advantage, which should be worth a few wins. I’ll have a whole separate post on that, when we eventually get the schedule-adjusted numbers. I’m sure I’ll talk about the Twins at length again. But for now, just realize where they’re sitting. In the West, no one is bad, and the Astros are amazing. In the East, no one is bad, and there are two super-teams at the top. In the Central, the Twins aren’t as good as the Indians, but they don’t have to be. They can aim for another wild-card game, and they’re in a better spot than our current projected-standings page would suggest.

The Twins are far from elite, and I suspect they know it. For all I know, they’re still going to add another starting pitcher. But while the Twins might not be great, there’s a playoff opening, because only so many teams can be great at a time. The Twins got in a year ago by being good enough, and while, sure, the Angels might’ve landed Shohei Ohtani, will he be as valuable to them as the Twins’ schedule will be to them? Call it unfair, if you want. Everything’s cyclical. By signing Logan Morrison, the Twins didn’t improve for the sake of improving. They improved for the sake of trying to bolster their run to the playoffs. Their chances are better than you’ve probably thought.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

What is the value of a marginal win at 83-79? Is that even the right way to evaluate a signing like this one if we make a general (and conservative, IMHO) assumption that Morrison is a 1.0 WAR player this upcoming year?