For the remainder of the 2012 season, I’ll take a weekly look at one Angel’s recent performance and how it relates to their overall season and, in some cases, the fortunes of the team. This week, our focus lies on DH Kendrys Morales.
In the 10th inning of Thursday’s game between the Angels and Red Sox, Kendrys Morales ripped a go-ahead solo shot to help end a hot mess of a 14-13 game. With the Angels pitching displaying an oppressive ineptitude, the team’s offense has largely been ignored despite solid production overall. Apart from Lord Trout, Angel hitters’ contributions pale when stacked against three-inning starts and bullpen implosions that have left the team wading through a lasting post-All Star sludge.
Within the Angels starting lineup, Kendrys Morales plays as if invisible; good enough to start, inexpensive enough to avoid vocal wrath, and solely confined to the batter’s box while Albert Pujols takes the reigns at first. For much of the season, Morales traded in singles and little else. Eight first-half home runs brought him a .431 slugging percentage, weak when stacked against his low-walk totals. A .289 batting average in a pitching haven allowed Kendrys to produce at an average rate, but bumping him down in the batting order in favor of Mark Trumbo drew the ire of no one.
Since the break, his power swing has kicked in a bit. The extra-inning armistice he delivered to the Fenway crowd was his 16th home run of the season and 8th since the start of July, a 40-game period. He struggled in the last 2-week stretch but was red-hot during August’s beginning: a nine game run featured Kendrys slamming 4 homers with a 1.234 OPS. Small sample size? Of course, but it was reassuring for Angels fans to find their former 1st baseman launching Cuban Missiles with authority once again.
Kendrys had a strange route to his brief flash of offensive stardom in 2009. His American debut in 2005 between High- and Double-A featured 22 home runs and a .315 average in 96 games. Arriving in the U.S. from Cuba with a 220 pound frame and dramatic yank of a swing, he looked a bit like Andres Gallaraga with the additional bonus of carrying a bat to both sides of the plate.
2006 and 2007, both spent in Triple-A Salt Lake City, were stranger seasons for Morales. His contact skills remained exceptional as he ran up a .330 average with just 70 strikeouts across two seasons and 130 total games. The 5 home runs in the latter year were more discouraging, however, and when coupled with his weak walk totals suggested some help from thin air and the BAbip Fairy (™ Andrew Karcher). Time spent with the Angels both seasons yielded inconclusive but unappetizing results.
In 2008, he was again revealed as a moderate power threat whose high Triple-A average (.341) didn’t translate to big league pitching (.213 in 27 games). Morales hit like Garret Anderson, at least in Salt Lake City, with his low K rate (usually around 13%) tempered by depressed walk totals. While Anderson initially carved a niche through strong defense throughout the outfield, Morales did most of his work at 1st and thus needed to produce with authority to avoid future seasons shuttled between the Anaheim and the PCL circus. Finally, his 34 home runs and 139 OPS+ with the Halos in 2009 guaranteed a lasting stay.
I was driving to the gym when Morales hit that walk-off slam in 2010, figuring I’d idle in my car for a few while the extra-inning game played out. When he slugged the game-ender, I remember the “DEEP FLY BALL” sort of call followed by radio confusion and intermittent updates provided by Terry Smith while the bizarre contrast between game-winning grand slam and dire injury emerged in the tense minutes and then days. Since then, Morales underwent setbacks, comebacks, and, finally, a reasonable imitation of his 2009 place within the Angels organization. But he has not been the same player as that 2009 form that provided some stability and firepower at a first base long occupied by the sorts of middling hitters Morales seemed determined to avoid regressing back into.
I would argue that Kendrys’ 2009 season would remain something of an outlier and a mirage even without any injury. He turned 26 in June of that year, entering his supposed peak. With just 36 unintentional walks in 152 games, Morales was not on the path of Frank Thomas-esque superstardom. His home OPS was over 200 points higher than his road total, meaning one of the two had to be a bit extreme because Angels Stadium is no hitter’s park. A .329 BAbip that season pointed to a little luck, and Kendrys’ position at 1st and lack of speed meant that almost all of his value would derive from the batter’s box.
In 2010, Kendrys had gotten off to a solid start that still pointed to a bit of regression. While his rate of home runs per fly ball rose from 18.1% to 21.6%, his fly ball rate in general plunged 10 percentage points overall while his ground ball rate rose, troubling for someone whose speed falls a bit short of Peter Bourjos’. With a BAbip back to a normal .296, Morales’ slugging percentage was only .487 at the time of his injury. He was a good middle-of-the-order hitter during the first third of the 2010 season, but he wasn’t an offensive star.
2012 has been Kendrys’ first season back from the injury. Thursday’s game rose his rRC+ to 111, a shade below his 123 from 2010, itself a bit lower than the 132 of his career 2009 season. His BAbip is back to 2009 levels but his Line Drive rate of 21% is a career high. As he was in the minors, Morales is an enigma; a hulking figure with 34 home runs in his recent past now hitting like Hunter Pence. I don’t see Morales revving up his numbers much but he doesn’t seem like a candidate for backward regression. Morales can only improve through tempered expectations and continued placement in the lower-half of the Angels’ order where his on-base deficiencies won’t substantially hamper the offense.