One of the biggest surprises of the 2011 season was Washington Nationals first baseman/left fielder Mike Morse, who hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 home runs. He ranked in the top 10 in the National League in batting average, slugging percentage, home runs, doubles, extra-base hits, RBIs and OPS. At 29, he had been never been a regular in the majors but suddenly had become one of the best hitters in the league.
Morse's season wasn't completely out of nowhere. He had played well in the second half of 2010, finishing with a .289/.352/.519 line in 293 plate appearances, but after kicking around Seattle and Washington for five years without earning a starting job, many figured it was a fluke. He proved the skeptics wrong and the Nationals recently signed him to a two-year, $10.5 million contract.
The question: Should we be skeptical about Morse's ability to repeat his 2011 season?
The red flag is Morse's walk rate, just 36 walks in 575 plate appearances. My gut reaction says it's difficult to maintain high-end production with a poor walk rate (combined with 126 strikeouts). A quick study reveals there have been 63 player-seasons since 2009 where a hitter with at least 502 plate appearances posted an OPS between .875 and .950. Of those 63 seasons, Morse's 6.3 percent walk rate was better than only three: Adrian Beltre in 2010, Robinson Cano in 2011 and Beltre again in 2011.
The one advantage Beltre and Cano have over Morse is they do a better job of putting the ball in play. Over the past two seasons, Beltre has a .907 OPS and 11.6 percent strikeout rate. Over the past three seasons, Cano owns a .889 OPS and 11.5 percent strikeout rate. Morse's K rate in 2011 was 21.9 percent.
What we're getting at is most good hitters control the strike zone. Guys like Beltre and Cano, who succeed despite expanding the zone, are the exceptions. My guess is Morse will have to improve in one of two areas: Draw a few more walks or cut down on his strikeouts. It's certainly possible: Ryan Braun had a 112/29 SO/BB walk ratio as a rookie and 129/42 as a sophomore. By 2011, he had cut that to 93/58. He's not a big walker, but he also doesn't strike out much for a power hitter.
The difference, of course, is that Braun is still younger than Morse, who turns 30 in March. Is Morse too old to make further adjustments? Working in his favor is that he's a big, strong guy — only six hitters had a better rate of home runs per flyball in 2011 — so he doesn't have to swing out of his shoes to hit the ball over the fence.
My guess is that Morse won't hit .303 again, but that his skill-set is legitimate. I don't think he's suddenly going to walk 60 times or anything, so his on-base percentage will drop as well. But even if he hits .280 he should be a middle-of-the-order bat who can hit 35 doubles and 30 home runs again.