Gareth Morgan’s BABIP went down on Tuesday. On the balls in play that he recorded, the Seattle Mariners outfield prospect grounded out, flew out, and singled. He had other at-bats, as well. In one of them, he fanned for the 46th time on the season. In the other two, he homered.
Morgan’s stat sheet is… intriguing. The 2014 second-round pick is slashing a solid .291/.352/.473, with four long balls, in 122 trips to the plate. He’s put up those robust numbers despite a 39.3% strikeout rate.
And then there’s his ball-in-play fortune. Prior to the aforementioned dip, it stood at .491, the highest mark in professional baseball. (He now ranks third, at .475, having been leapfrogged by Clinton Lumber Kings teammate Anthony Jimenez and Blue Jays prospect Bo Bichette.)
The 21-year-old native of Toronto, Ontario, wasn’t aware of that statistical factoid when I spoke to him after Tuesday’s game. Nor could he offer an easy explanation for the mix of whiffs and safe landings.
“I’m not really sure,” admitted Morgan. “I’ve simplified my approach to where I’m just looking for a fastball to drive to the middle of the field, but other than that, I don’t really have an answer.”
He does, however, have a clue.
“When the pitcher puts the ball in the area where I want it, I am barreling those up,” surmised Morgan. “When I get in trouble is when I’m chasing pitches I think I can hit. If I’m looking middle-middle, I don’t want to get too far away from that spot — I don’t want to be going after pitches on the corner, or two inches off the corner. It’s a problem when I start thinking I can hit everything that’s being thrown.”
Morgan believes he’s made great strides with his pitch recognition. He admittedly “will still chase here and there,” but compared to last season, the difference is “night and day.” His walk rate, which was under 6% a year ago, is currently a creditable 9.0%. Being flummoxed by ankle-high sliders is no longer an everyday bugaboo.
Improved timing, fueled by getting his foot down earlier, has been a key.
“When you’re starting too late, that’s when everything is rushed and you don’t see the slider out of the hand,” explained Morgan. “You don’t have that extra split second of time to spit on that pitch. When you’re starting early, you have time to recognize it and follow it with your eyes.”
What’s happening between his ears has also become a focal point for the youngster. Morgan has spent time with Jimmy Van Ostrand, whom the Mariners hired over the offseason in a sport-psychology capacity. The 32-year-old former minor leaguer — himself a native Canadian — serves as the organization’s Coordinator of Character and Leadership Development.
“He works with all the players on the mental side of the game,” explained Morgan. “We talk about thoughts that are in my head during at-bats, and how I can get back to my original plan if I get away from it. We also talk about not worrying about failure, and about not getting too high on good games. Controlling emotions.”
Morgan admitted that “it’s nice to look at box scores like [Tuesday’s]” — nothing puts you on Cloud 9 like a multi-homer game — but true to his convictions, he takes care to accentuate process over results. His bombs were a case in point. After the first, he told hitting coach David Flores, “I guess the plan worked.’
Despite having celebrated his 21st birthday only last month, Morgan has been formulating plans in a competitive environment for quite some time. He began playing on Baseball Canada’s National Junior Team when he was 14 years old. At age 15, he was the youngest player to see action in the Under Armour All-American game at Wrigley Field. Growing up north of the border may not have afforded him an opportunity to play year-round, but his baseball life has been that of an itinerant. Morgan estimated that he’d played in 15 countries by the time he’d graduated from high school.
Despite his National Team and showcase experiences, jumping from the prep circuit to the pro circuit proved to be a confidence-threatening challenge. While this year’s BABIP-influenced Midwest League numbers are promising, Morgan was downright horrendous in his two-plus seasons of rookie ball. Not only was he failing to hit his weight — he’s listed at 6-foot-4, 220 — he was striking out at an even higher rate than he is now. Truth be told, his future didn’t look all that bright.
He had an interesting response when I asked if there are any good questions he never gets from reporters. After pausing, the thoughtful Torontonian told me that no one ever asks him if he’s having fun. I answered back with a slightly different question: were you having fun prior to this year’s turnaround?
“It’s hard to say yes to that,” admitted Morgan. “But at the end of the day, baseball is a game. When it starts to become a chore, the passion will start to drift away. You want to have fun doing this, because you’re playing the game you love to play.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.