O Plush, Where Art Thou?
After two multi-hit games in the past week, Nyjer Morgan has raised his season average 27 points and is 7 for his last 12 with two walks and two doubles. This has inspired those around to team to declare that Morgan is, in fact, “heating up”. Like many on the team this year he underwent a slow start and has fallen short of expectations, but were we asking for too much from him after 2011?
Like most fan expectations, particularly for this year’s team, the answer is certainly yes. After a year of antics and clutch hitting, we forget all too quickly that Plush was exiled from Washington and Pittsburgh before for similar play to what we’ve seen in 2012. His triple-slash line during his only full season in Nationals’ red (2010: .253/.319/.314) bears striking resemblance to his .242/.307/.304 line this year, his on-base surfacing above the .300 Mendoza line on just Tuesday. We saw glimpses of his hacker approach last year, when his walk rate hit a paltry 4.4% and he saw over 600 fewer pitches than in 2010, even with a difference of about 150 plate appearances. He also benefited from a .362 BABIP. But if anything, the plate approach has improved in 2012, he is swinging the bat very slightly less (down 1% from last year) and making similar contact (85%, down .4% from 2011), so why are the results so different this year?
Chalk it up to a recent inability to drive the ball. For someone with such limited pop in his bat, Morgan has racked up a respectable amount of extra base hits in his career thanks to his blazing speed. He was good for 13 doubles in just 160 AB in with Pittsburgh in 2008, similar to his full season numbers over the next three years. But last year, Plush began pulling the ball with some more authority and overachieved to the tune of a .116 ISO over 378 AB, reflected on the stat sheet in his 25.7& line drive rate, 6.1% above the league average. If we extrapolate this rate to coincide with the minimum plate appearances required to qualify for the batting title (which in his case would have only been 74 more PA), Morgan would have been tied for third in all of baseball, only behind Joey Votto, Michael Bourn, and Michael Young, and ahead of the top five vote receivers for NL MVP.
This year? Morgan has just six extra base hits (4 doubles and 2 HR) dropping his ISO to .062, and it’s thanks to a 20.3% line drive rate which is .4% below the MLB mean. Of the three possible outcomes when a ball is hit, Fangraphs tells us how valuable line drives are: they produce 1.26 runs per out, while fly balls produce 0.13 runs per out and ground balls produce 0.05 runs per out. Put that together with his .291 BABIP (generally speaking, .300 is average), and we see that Plush is hitting less line drives and the ones that he does hit are mostly landing in defenders’ gloves. Herein lies a big part of the reason he began 2012 with a record streak of plate appearances without recording an RBI.
Brewers fans have placed a lot of blame on the heads of Morgan and to a greater extent, Rickie Weeks for the team’s run-scoring struggles, and an upward climb in the standings begins with improved hitting from those two. While that blame isn’t grossly misplaced, it seems that the bar has been set a bit too high for Plush after his 2011 aberration. Even when watching footage of his plate appearances last year, it should go without saying that he is not in the same class as Votto, Matt Kemp, and Ryan Braun, yet in 2011 he gave a wonderful impersonation of hitters of that caliber. Nationals and Pirates fans know the 2012 version of Nyjer Morgan as the real Nyjer Morgan. Logic would say that his real abilities lie somewhere between what he displayed in 2011 and an aggregate of his 2010/2012 seasons. While it remains to be seen what kind of hitter the Brewers get in 2012, that kind of median is definitely solid for a platoon center fielder, and hopefully result in the return of his legendary post-game interviews.
Sources: fangraphs.com, baseballheatmaps.com
Kevan Feyzi blogs on the Brewers for PocketDoppler.com. He drinks several glasses of water per day, can sing an operatic lyric bass, and avoids clown questions whenever possible. He can be followed on Twitter @fevankeyzi.