Poor numbers beg the question: Was Nyjer Morgan a flash in the pan?

Washington’s starting centerfielder, Nyjer Morgan, has stumbled out of the gates this spring, batting only .143 in 21 at-bats. While spring stats aren’t something that should be taken very heavily, the Nationals outfielder has a sterling but troublingly short track record. Could it be possible that Morgan’s brilliance in 2009 was more of a flash-in-the-pan than a breakout of a budding star?

Morgan capped off his first full major league season by putting together 212 outstanding plate appearances for the Nationals before getting hurt to end his 2009 campaign. Morgan, 28, batted .351/.396/.435 in Washington while helping to rejuvenate a club that was in need of any positive direction.

On top of his stellar offensive production in Washington, Morgan also played some of the best outfield defense in the majors. In 119 games he posted a 27.8 UZR and a 35.8 UZR/150, meaning if he had qualified he would have been the league leader in overall UZR. With the defense anchored by Morgan up the middle, the Nationals pitching instantly improved.

Despite Morgan’s excellence in Washington last year, it was a small sample size in what has been a short career. What makes him so difficult to project is the fact that he lost several years of development by trying to become a professional hockey player. After receiving a college scholarship to play baseball, Morgan gave up the hockey dream and focused on playing between the lines. After being drafted in the 33rd round, the speedster didn’t make it to low A ball until he was 22, and didn’t make it to the majors until he was 26.

Morgan’s prior major league experience had been limited, but solid overall. He consistently hit above .290 and got on base at about .350. As we saw, however, he exploded after coming to Washington.

So what made Morgan so successful in July and August?

The big outlier is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which skyrocketed to .438 in July and .351 in August. Morgan has had a great career BABIP because of his speed, but one that high is unrealistic and unsustainable. So this is a likely cause his batting average and on base percentage jumped so much.  While we were excited about Morgan’s high on base percentage (.418 in July and .371 in August), his walk percentage dropped to below six percent each month. The fact was that Morgan was getting on base with his speed and his inflated batting average, not his eye.

It wasn’t all luck that improved his stats though. Morgan’s ground-ball percentage improved in his final two months, hitting 60.3% of balls on the ground in August compared to 45.8% in March and April. Getting the ball down and in play goes a long way for someone with speed like Morgan, and it might explain the rise in his BABIP.  Morgan also benefitted in raising his ground-ball percentage by lowering his fly-ball percentage while keeping his line-drive percentage steady. This means in the month of August, 78 % of balls Morgan put into play were either on the ground or hit squarely.

Morgan also managed to hit fastballs way better in 2009 than he had in previous years. According to FanGraphs, he hit fastballs 14.5 runs above average in 2009 compared to a career mean of 3 runs above average.

It seems that Morgan’s success in 2009 was a mix of fortunate luck and some legitimate improvements at the plate.  Yes, he hit at an unsustainable level when he came over to Washington, however in his third season in the majors he has learned how to make solid contact and uses his speed to make himself a weapon. He won’t be a .350 hitter ever again, but it wouldn’t be outrageous to expect him to hit .290-.310 while getting on base around .350. His Gold Glove caliber defense should be here to stay as well.