Adam LaRoche finally gave in and took the Nationals two year contract today, after having sat it on it for most of the off-season. He’ll return to Washington and play first base, which means Mike Morse will not be playing much first base, and that means Mike Morse is going to get traded. Two years ago, Morse was really good. Last year, not so much. Teams thinking about acquiring Morse are going to have to figure out whether they think 2011 was a fluke, or whether he’s an impact bat who just had a down year while struggling with some health issues.
Because, let’s be honest, you’re only acquiring Morse for his offensive capability. The Nationals didn’t consider him an outfielder any more, which is why he’s available in the first place. His career UZR/150 in the OF is -15, which is pretty close to the line at which you see teams decide that the lack of range is too much of a problem to continue the experiment. He’s also been a negative baserunner for most of his career, and last year, only David Ortiz, Jesus Montero, Prince Fielder, and Billy Butler were worse at advancing around the bases. Morse is a guy who fits best as a 1B/DH, and if he doesn’t hit, he’s not particularly useful.
So, will he hit well enough at age 31 to justify not only his $7 million salary, but also the talent required to outbid other suitors and strike a deal with the Nationals? To find out, I decided to look at how other hitters have done, focusing on guys who have succeeded in a not too dissimilar way from what Morse has done the last three years.
To compile the list, I used the following leaderboard filters:
1,000 or more PAs
BABIP >= .335
ISO >= .125
This gave us our most recent 10 year range that also allows players to have had an age 31 season, so that we can actually have a follow-up year to compare once we identify similar-ish offensive players. Morse’s primary offensive skills over the last few years have been hitting for power and posting a well above average BABIP, which are likely both the product of hitting the baseball pretty hard on a regular basis. Since we don’t have something like HITF/x to measure speed off bat, I’m using ISO as a stand-in to eliminate guys who get high BABIPs through sheer speed (think Ichiro or Michael Bourn), and then also eliminated a couple of guys — Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe — who got huge BABIP benefits from playing half their games in Coors Field.
That left me with a list of nine players. Here are those nine, with their relevant age 28-30 performances.
These guys had much better plate discipline than Morse does, but he hit for more power than the group average, and his success has come in a lower run environment, so overall, the fit is actually quite close. Their group average wRC+ of 132 is basically a match for his 133 wRC+ over the last three years, and they mostly did it with above average power and high BABIPs, just as he did. Jeter and Young are on the lower power/fewer strikeouts end of the scale, but if we define the search too narrowly, we’ll end up without any object lessons, and both sustained high BABIPs without being burners.
So, now, the real question – how did these guys do at age 31? Results below.
As expected, the trait that was least predictive was the high BABIP, as it fell from a group average of .345 down to .322. Jeter is the only one who matched his 28-30 BABIP in his age 31 season, with all the rest regressing towards a lower mean. But, you’ll note that they didn’t regress to league average, and perhaps more important, all of their other skills remained remarkably stable. Their walk rates remained the same, their strikeouts barely increased, and they hit for slightly more power at age 31 than they did from 28-30. Overall, their wRC+ was still 126, not much of a step back from their supposed prime years.
Young and Bradley took big steps backwards, as both saw their ISO go down with their BABIPs. But for the rest, the high BABIP wasn’t a sign of any kind of impending doom. It went down, as expected, but it didn’t sink their value.
Morse is a little more prone to BABIP fluctuations than this group, since they walked twice as often as he does, but it should be noted that he can probably maintain a decent amount of offensive value even if his BABIP regresses next year, as it should be expected to. The low walk/high strikeout combination will keep him out of the Holliday/Youkilis level of production, but as Josh Hamilton just showed last year, a lot of power can negate a pretty terrible approach at the plate. Morse doesn’t have Hamilton’s power, but he has enough to remain an above average hitter even while flailing wildly at anything thrown near the plate.
In a lot of ways, he’s similar to Kendrys Morales, who the Angels traded last month. Too aggressive at the plate, not a defensive asset, lousy on the bases, but with enough thump to make him a useful role player. Morales was traded straight up for Jason Vargas, an average-ish starting pitcher headed for a $7 to $8 million payday in arbitration. Morales can’t even pretend to play the outfield, but he’s also a switch hitter, a little younger, and is due a lower salary in 2013. Morales and Morse should have similar levels of trade value, and not surprisingly, the same teams that were rumored to be interested in Morales are now rumored to be interested in Morse.
There’s not enough value here for the Nationals to command a huge return, and they’re reportedly shopping Morse for the best reliever they can get, with preference for a lefty. Given his deficiencies and contract status, that sounds about right. Combining his total skills, Morse is probably a +2 win player making a salary just slightly below what a +2 win player is worth in 2013. He’s worth trading for, but not giving up a huge return. For a team who wants an offensive upgrade without a long term commitment, though, swapping a reliever for Mike Morse makes a decent amount of sense.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.