Since his return to the lineup this month, Justin Morneau has seemingly been driving the ball to the opposite field not only better but also more frequently.
In Detroit, the big left-hander crushed a home run over the left-center field fence and then went the other way with pitches in Milwaukee over the weekend – one for a bloop single and the other for a sacrifice fly. In all, nine of his 17 balls in play prior to last night’s game went to the left of dead center. While it is a small sample size, Morneau has hit 52% of his balls to the left of center in May which dwarf’s April’s 28%.
Positive as that may be, Morneau’s season has been a bit perplexing, particularly in the plate discipline department.
Although he has always had the tendency to chase pitches out of the zone, the level at which he is straying after pitches has reached a career-high of 40%. In 2011, while he was having issues keeping his weight back and his hip closed, the strategy that opposing teams implemented was to keep the ball out of the strike zone and allow the Twins first baseman to get himself out – particularly when being pitched away. Often, Morneau would be out ahead of the pitch and harmless turnover on the pitch to the right-side of the infield.
This year teams are pretty much attacking him in the same many only now they have added a wrinkle: more curves.
One significant change is that opponents have been pumping him curve balls this season. It would seem that the league-wide scouting report on Morneau is that his eagerness to catch up with the fastball away has ripened him for a stream of curve balls to disrupt his timing on the hard stuff. And, so far, the league has been successful in shutting him down with this pitch.
In 2010, the last year Morneau was truly “dialed in”, the first baseman hit curve balls at 5.0 runs above average clip according the Fangraphs.com Pitch Value system. That year, Morneau drove those hanging curve balls fairly well. While seeing fewer than 10% of the overall pitch distribution as curves, Pitch F/X data found at JoeLefkowicz.com says that he went 10-for-30 on curve balls put into play (a very good .333 BABIP) while hitting another four for home runs.
Meanwhile, this year, Morneau has seen a steady increase in the amount of breaking pitches thrown his direction, receiving curves 18% of the time in 2012. Unlike his 2010 campaign, Morneau has not had nearly as much success against the hook. By Fangraphs.com’s Pitch Value metric, he has posted a career-low 2.2 runs below average which is based on the fact that he is just 1-for-11 on curves in play (.090 BABIP) – including a fly out to center off of one of Gavin Floyd’s benders in the third inning last night - while putting a high margin of those in play as grounders.
Given the fact that he is starting to rekindle his love affair with driving the outside pitch to left field, there are reasons to remain optimistic for his production. By driving the ball to left, Morneau is demonstrating he can keep his weight and hands back - two main elements that help in adjusting to the curve ball.
For Morneau, the season is still fairly young and he certainly has the capabilities of rebounding, that is, if he can remain healthy.