On April 17, David Laurila posted the transcript of an excellent Q&A with Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Logan Morrison. At that point, the season was exactly two weeks old, and Morrison, then sporting a 136 wRC+ and .302/.348/.535 slash line, had been a pleasant surprise for the Rays. Prior to 2017, most thought of Morrison as a talented but inconsistent hitter; strong 2010 and 2011 campaigns were followed up by a number of uninspiring and injury-plagued seasons, and while Morrison was bound for an occasional hot streak (May 2016 jumps to mind most quickly), he’d been unable to establish himself as much more than a replacement-level first baseman. His rolling wOBA reflects this inconsistency, as the following chart demonstrates some significant oscillation over the last few years:
For that reason, it’s been an even more pleasant surprise for the Rays that their first baseman has been able to sustain his success so thoroughly over the first three months of 2017. In fact, he’s been one of the best power hitters in the league, and unexpectedly so; The Ringer’s Michael Baumann recently ranked him as the third most shocking name on the home run leaderboards, trailing only Yonder Alonso and Justin Smoak. Through June 24, Morrison’s 22 home runs and .332 ISO are bested only by MVP frontrunner Aaron Judge, and he currently sports the third-highest WAR among all first basemen in the majors. Morrison’s also been barreling up the ball at a far higher rate in 2017; even with over a hundred fewer plate appearances this year than in 2016, LoMo’s already had seven more barrels than last year, and his barrel percentage per batted ball event has more than doubled, from 7.5% to 15.1%.
Interestingly, Morrison’s average exit velocity has actually seen a moderate decline, from 90.3 to 89.2 miles per hour, but his raised launch angle is enough to warrant a significant increase in expected wOBA, which has risen to .382 from .340. Morrison discussed this aspect of his game with Laurila, saying that he’s benefited from valuing “launch angle and all that stuff,” and that his new approach, at its core, consists of trying to hit fly balls “up the middle.”
He’s stuck to that approach pretty rigidly during the first few months of 2017; as shown below, he’s been able to eliminate almost all of his batted balls with launch angles of below 10°, instead shifting the majority of his contact to somewhere between 15° and 40°:
Further, look at how much his spray chart has shifted towards the middle of the field:
Overall, Morrison’s average launch angle has increased from 12° to nearly 17° – placing him in the same neighborhood as Miguel Sano and Justin Upton – and his fly ball rate has skyrocketed. Morrison’s fly ball rate of 48.1% is miles above last year’s 34.7%, and is just two percent behind that of fellow fly ball devotee (and reigning Most Shocking Home Run Leader) Yonder Alonso.
So, we know that Morrison’s been living by at least one of the concepts he discussed with Laurila, but I believe we can also attribute LoMo’s 2017 success to another item he mentioned. In Morrison’s words, “A lot of [hitting] is just getting the best pitch you can to hit … If [the pitcher] is a guy who can do everything, I’m just trying to get a fastball middle until two strikes.”
Through June, Morrison’s done an exceptional job of putting these words into action. Compare his swing heatmaps over the past two years’:
Last season, Morrison’s swings were concentrated around two zones – one in the middle-in section of the strike zone, and one on the outside corner. This year, though, he’s been splitting the difference, looking instead for pitches almost exactly between his two favorite areas of 2016. We can see that so far, Morrison’s avoided chasing pitches on that outside corner, thus sticking to his philosophy of focusing solely on the best pitches to hit. And when we dilute the sample to swings in non-two strike counts, we can see a similarly stark contrast:
Just as Morrison said back in April, he’s been swinging almost exclusively at pitches in the middle of the zone with less than two strikes. From the above heatmap, it’s pretty evident that this wasn’t the case in 2016, as his swings comprised a far greater area of the strike zone, and even a section outside of it. According to FanGraphs, Morrison’s O-Swing% has fallen 29.3% to 25.9%, reflecting his increased patience. I should note that PitchFX, on the other hand, actually marks his O-Swing% as slightly higher this season. In conjunction, though, I’m interpreting these contradictory statistics as an indicator that Morrison’s laid off of the borderline pitches, presumably on the outside corner, about which the two pitch trackers disagree.
This approach, combined with his increase in launch angle, has notably improved the first baseman’s quality of contact early in the count. In pre-two strike situations, Morrison’s xwOBA has risen from .396 last year to .498 in 2017, which, to provide context, is roughly equal to Alonso (.499), Justin Bour (.498), Edwin Encarnacion (.498), and Carlos Correa (.495).
With such an inconsistent track record, we shouldn’t necessarily expect Morrison to continue hitting at such a high clip. However, while Morrison’s never ran a particularly high average on balls in play – his BABIP hasn’t exceeded .290 since 2010 – in this case, it’d be fair to expect some positive regression on his .248 BABIP, especially considering Morrison’s altered batted ball profile. And true, his 25.3% HR/FB rate is much higher than it’s been for any full season in his career, but it’s not unreasonably high for a top power hitter, especially one with a newly-increased launch angle. It’s not like his 22 home runs have been flukes, either – among all 104 batters with at least ten home runs, the average distance of Morrison’s shots has been an estimated 403 feet, which ranks almost exactly in the middle of the pack. Plotted against a backdrop of Tropicana Field, Morrison’s home park (and whose park factor for left-handed home runs was recently scored as perfectly average), it’s evident that the vast majority of Morrison’s four-baggers have cleared the fence by a comfortable margin.
By actualizing on the topics he discussed with David Laurila, LoMo’s been able to emerge as one of the season’s most unexpected members of the league leaderboards, and has been instrumental in keeping the 40-37 Rays in the AL Wild Card picture. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to sustain this performance through 2017 and beyond, but if Morrison can continue with the adjustments that have made the first half of the season such a success, there are genuine reasons to believe that his spot on the leaderboards might last longer than most saw coming. If the second half of Morrison’s 2017 is as productive as the first, he’ll be finding himself much closer to #20 than #1 on next year’s edition of the Most Shocking Home Run Hitters list.