The Giants are fourth in the National League in runs, and they’ve got a new Big Bat in the middle of the lineup. Michael Morse didn’t have a great season last year, and he came to the Giants to rehabilitate his value on a one-year pillow contract. Now things are going well for team and player, and there’s something to his approach — his mentality about aggressiveness, his openness to adjustments, and his enjoyment of the game — that makes it all work. Especially with a wrist that’s finally healthy.
For a man that boasts The Beast as a nickname, it might be surprising to note that his power (and his strikeout rate) has slowly increased as he’s had more time in the bigs. He wasn’t minted this way from the very beginning. But Morse doesn’t think that he’s missing more because he’s hitting for more power, or at least he finds the relationship more complicated.
“When you have a little bigger swing, when you make contact with the ball, it can go a little further than if you’re just trying to put the ball in play,” Morse admitted before a game against the Dodgers in mid May. “With a bigger swing comes an earlier start.” And power is one of the few things correlated positively with strikeout rate (r^2 around .4), so on some level it is that simple.
But it’s also not. “I hate strikeouts, it’s the worse thing I do — I try to keep it down,” said the slugger. “Any time I feel my swing gets long I tend to strike out more — I just have to keep my swing short.” If you think it’s impossible for him to shorten a swing this big, you might be surprised: among hitters with a similar swinging strike rate (13+%) over the last two years, Morse’s strikeout rate is two percentage points better than average. But he has to fight it: “It’s part of the game — You start feeling good, you might start swinging too hard, next thing you know, you’re striking out more,” he said. “It’s a humbling game.”
The biggest challenge for a player like Morse is to balance aggression with patience and contact. On the first pitch, though, Morse is among the league’s most aggressive. His first pitch swing rate ranked in the top ten percent of the league and it represents virtually no change from last year. “Certain situations, they might throw a first pitch fastball down the middle, and the next thing you know you don’t see nothing for a strike,” Morse said. “You’re down 0-1 and they’re trying to get you to reach for everything.”
Sometimes, it’s on feeling. “The other day, in Atlanta, a guy got me out on a curveball and the next time up, I sat on the curveball first pitch and hit a home run,” Morse smiled before quickly adding — “You could say it’s guessing, but we don’t do that often.” In case you’re wondering, the victim was Julio Teheran and the pitch was actually his slider. And it wasn’t a terrible guess — Teheran throws sliders about a quarter of the time on the first pitch to righties. The approach isn’t so silly, especially considering that first pitch balls in play are getting good results these days (a 122 OPS+ in 2012).
One adjustment that Morse didn’t make might be helping him out. When faced with playing in the sixth-toughest home park for righty homers, Morse shrugged and didn’t change: “You just got to live with it.” He admits to seeing balls that would be in the bleachers in other parks, but points out that “a lot of guys have made great careers here” despite the park. Did he think of changing his swing plane to fit his park? “When you try to hit fly balls, you hit ground balls,” felt the Giant. And so his current ground ball per fly ball rate (1.51) is almost a direct match for his career number (1.46).
Morse also brought his humidor along with him on his travels. The bat case that Ichiro Suzuki gave him is still there, keeping his bats happy. After explaining that the box keeps the moisture in or out of his bats depending on the surrounding humidity, Morse described how that helped him most: “When bats dry out, they tend to shatter — you might hit it good and the bat will break.” Perhaps teams should invest in humidors for all their bats. (Although it looks like even the humidor can’t solve Coors Field.)
Maybe the biggest reason for his personal success so far is the simplest, though. He’s healthy. His wrist required offseason surgery, but Morse tried to soldier through last year. “I was swinging with one hand, and I was trying to play through it, because I knew it was either to try and play through it or my year would be over and have the surgery,” Morse said of last year. Jeff Zimmerman once found that players that play through injury outperform their projected slugging percentages, and here we have that effect played out in real life. The projection system does not know why his numbers were down, just that they were down.
The Giants knew that he was fully recovered after surgery and took a chance on a new left fielder. And he’s appreciative. “We’ve been playing this game since were kids, man, and you have to fun with it because it will eat you alive otherwise,” he said with a smile. The same smile he flashed when he hit the phantom grand slam, the same one that came after that ball hit first base and jumped up and bit him last week.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.