Can Morse do it again?

Can Morse do it again?
December 16, 2011, 5:41 am
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There's no debating Michael Morse's importance to the Nationals in 2011. During a season in which Ryan Zimmerman missed 2 12 months, Adam LaRoche missed four months and Jayson Werth produced some of the worst offensive numbers of his career, Morse's presence in the middle of the Nationals' lineup was absolutely crucial.

The stats spoke for themselves: a .303 average, 31 home runs, 95 RBI, a .910 OPS. The fact Morse had never come close to producing like that previously in his career only made those numbers all the more impressive.

That fact, however, also leaves plenty doubting whether Morse can duplicate his 2011 output in 2012 and beyond. Those gaudy numbers might well have been a fluke, and the odds of Morse doing it again next year are minimal. Right?

Actually, that's probably not a fair assessment. Sure, Morse had never put up numbers like that before. But that was a product of his lack of opportunity, not a lack of ability.

Indeed, if you compare Morse's 2011 stats to his 2010 stats, you may be surprised to see they don't vary all that much. The key is knowing which stats to use and which stats to ignore.

Pay no attention to any of the compilation stat categories (home runs, RBI, doubles, total bases, etc.) because he had nearly twice as many plate appearances this year (575) as he did the previous year (293).

Look instead at his various averages and ratios, the kind of stats that don't depend on playing time. Look how similar those stats are over the last two years...

STAT 2010 2011 AVG .289 .303 OBP .352 .360 SLG .519 .550 OPS .870 .910 HR 5.1 5.4 SO 21.8 21.9 BB 7.5 6.3 Line drive 19 22 BABIP .330 .344
Are the numbers slightly better in 2011 than they were in 2010? Yes, but the difference isn't that great. What I found most interesting was that Morse's home run and strikeout rates were nearly identical from one year to the next, and that his walk rate actually dropped this season.

The biggest improvement Morse made from 2010 to 2011 was probably his ability to drive the ball for extra bases more often: 11.7 percent of his hits this year went for extra bases, up from 9.9 percent the previous year. But that's not because he was hitting home runs at a greater rate. It's because he was hitting more doubles (22.8 percent of his hits were doubles this year, only 15.6 percent were in 2010).

Everyone's favorite offensive stat to look at these days is BABIP (batting average on balls in play). An unusually high BABIP is supposed to suggest a player was more lucky than good in a given year, and Morse's .344 BABIP was up there (it ranked 10th in the National League). Except his .330 BABIP in 2010 was fairly high itself and would have ranked 21st in the NL if Morse had enough at-bats to qualify.

Go even farther back in his career, and Morse's BABIP goes even higher. In 337 career at-bats with the Mariners, Morse posted a humongous .369 BABIP. In other words, he was an even luckier hitter in his early days than he was once he enjoyed his true breakthrough season in D.C.

Before I get way too stat-geek here and lose 99 percent of you to brain injury, let's wrap this up in terms that don't require membership in SABR.

The key point to take away from all this: Though Morse produced more this season than he ever had in the big leagues, he really didn't produce at a much higher level than he always had. He merely got a chance to play more than at any point in his career.

Was there some element of luck involved? Perhaps, but probably only a small amount. Is he likely to regress some in 2012? Perhaps, but probably not nearly as much as you might think. Don't forget, he also should have a much better lineup around him this time, with Zimmerman and LaRoche healthy; Werth perhaps bouncing back from a down year; Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond becoming better hitters and a certain 19-year-old phenom arriving at some point.

Michael Morse was always a good offensive player. He just finally got the opportunity to prove it to everyone in 2011.

And there's every reason to believe he'll prove it again in 2012.