Kendrys Morales: A Gamble on Baseball’s Rhythms

In the weeks when between Billy Butler’s contract was bought out and today, with Kendrys Morales brought to Kansas City on a two-year, $17 million deal, the Royals ranked dead-last in FanGraphs’ projected Designated Hitter Depth Charts. Not dead-last amongst American League teams: Dead. Last. Less projected WAR from their DH spot than 15 NL teams, none of which actually employ a designated hitter.

With Morales now in Kansas City, one can see that the Royals have now soared up the depth chart rankings…up to the #24 position, with an estimated 0.6 WAR now due to emit from this spot in the lineup. The Texas Rangers now have the dishonor at being the lowest-ranked AL team, headlined by the light-hitting combination of Mitch Moreland and Rougned Odor. The Royals are now only just ahead of the Miami Marlins (featuring a rotation of Justin Bour/Jeff Baker/Donovan Solano/Derek Dietrich) and the Philadelphia Philles (Darin Ruf/Grady Sizemore/Cesar Hernandez/Cameron Rupp/Maikel Franco).

Actually: the Royals are not really ahead of these National League lightweights. FanGraphs projects that these NL teams will achieve 0.5 WAR over 300 plate appearances, while the Royals are projected to reach 0.6 WAR over 700 plate appearances. So, really, the Royals have moved from #30 to #29 on the DH rankings, now ahead of only the Rangers on a per-PA basis.

Billy Butler and the A’s are up in sixth place.

Butler would have been paid $4M more than the Royals are going to pay Morales next year. That doesn’t seem like a prohibitive cost to turn around a spot in your lineup from league-worst to well above average.

So why did the Royals make this change at DH? I think they saw, like the rest of us, Morales flounder in 2014. And I think they know, like the rest of us, that Morales is a limited athlete who is traveling down the wrong slope of the aging curve. The Royals are a team that needs to contend next year in order to justify their massively lengthy rebuilding process. They need this to count. So: why?

At first glance, it looks like Morales suffers far more than Butler when it comes to the DH Penalty, the theory that playing DH actually takes a toll on a player’s offensive production, perhaps because of the bizarre rhythms of the position.

In Butler, the Royals had one of the very few players in the Majors whose offensive production does not dip significantly when he is slotted in at DH. Butler’s career positional split, via Baseball Reference:

Butler as DH 3109 .290 .353 .434
Butler as 1B 1642 .303 .368 .476

Morales has clearly absorbed a bigger penalty over his career:

Morales as DH 1275 .255 .311 .422
Morales as 1B 1464 .288 .340 .492

The penalty was brutal for Morales in 2014:

Morales as DH – 2014 292 .196 .257 .325
Morales as 1B – 2014 108 .277 .324 .376

But then, all of 2014 was brutal for Morales. It was easily the worst season of his career, and he was one of the worst regular players in the Majors. It might also have been the most bizarre season of Morales’ whole playing career: after he received a qualifying offer from the Mariners last winter, no team wanted to suffer the penalty of a lost draft pick, and he went unsigned until June. Then, six weeks after the Minnesota Twins picked him up, he was traded to the Seattle Mariners. If you’re used to going to Spring Training every single year of your career, I could see how one would be out of their element if they were suddenly thrown in midseason. Fellow qualifying-offer-recipient Stephen Drew endured virtually the same travel gauntlet, and with similarly dismal on-field results.

The thing is, Morales has actually performed really well as a DH during the two “normal” years of his career when DH was his primary position. He only suffered a slight penalty with the Angels in 2012:

Morales as DH – 2012 390 .271 .313 .458
Morales as 1B – 2012 118 .283 .356 .491

And in 2013 with the Seattle Mariners, Morales accomplished the (surprisingly rare) feat of performing better when he hit as a DH:

Morales as DH – 2013 523 .273 .342 .441
Morales as 1B – 2013 131 .276 .298 .433

This is the performance that the Royals are hoping to receive from Morales. Morales had 1.7 and 1.4 WAR in these seasons — negative defense and baserunning and all — and identical 119 wRC+. This is the performance that the Royals are trying to help Morales achieve by signing him early in the winter, giving him the time and security to adjust to his new city and enter Spring Training with confidence.

Although I’ve come around on the A’s signing Butler, we also have to consider the old truism that the Royals are the team that knows Butler’s health, condition, et cetera, better than anybody else — and they weren’t interested in keeping him around.

If Morales returns to his “normal-season” production, the Royals just might have squeezed some positive dollars-per-WAR value out of the expensive free agent market.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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Dave Cameron
9 years ago

Miles, could you step into my office please?