Revisiting Mike Morse, How Good Can He Be?

At least once on this blog and much more often in my daily conversations I have argued that the Nationals need to find a way to get utility player/outfielder Mike “The Code” Morse more PAs. Not only does Morse have the 2nd highest HR/PA ratio (0.0674) in the Majors (behind apparent powerhouse Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays), he also has a great looking wOBA (.438), ISO (.277), OBP (.393), and AVG (.349).

A serious critique of this argument, however, is that Morse does not have many PAs, which is true, so it is difficult to take his performance without a grain of salt. Upon deeper investigation this a very real concern. Though Morse’s .383 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is over two standard deviations above the qualified ML average, this is still not necessarily an indicator that Morse is getting lucky. After all, hitters have much more control over their BABIP than pitchers, there are a few hitters at the same BABIP level as Morse this season (like Josh Hamilton, Justin Morneau, and Austin Jackson), and Mike Morse does have a career .365 BABIP.

Things do become troubling when we consider a statistic known as xBABIP, or expected BABIP. Though my version of xBABIP is quite crude-I think it only has something like a .4-.5 correlation with actual BABIP-it is worth thinking about as it predicts that Morse should have a BABIP of .314 based on the percentage of his hits that go for line drives, fly balls, and ground balls. The difference between Morse’s xBABIP and his BABIP is quite large; two standard deviations above the average qualified ML difference. As for Morse’s career .365 BABIP, Morse’s career xBABIP is only .328.

What this indicates is that Morse’s AVG, and as a result his wOBA and OBP, are inflated and would likely fall if he were given more playing time. Presenting another problem for Morse is his low BB% of 5.6% which is quite far below the league average of 9.2%. Morse is swinging outside of the zone much more often this season than he usually does (40.3% O-Swing this year versus 28.9% career), which strongly correlates with a worse BB%, so his BB% will probably rise the more he plays as well.

Morse’s power surge is also an aberration. His career rate of .025 HR/PA is well below his current line which is actually remarkably close to Babe Ruth’s career rate. I realize I am crushing a lot of dreams by writing this but Morse is not Ruth. Morse’s barrage of home runs is also inflating his ISO which we should expect to come closer to his career .147 mark the more he plays.

For the sake of completeness I should also mention that Morse is not particularly good at fielding (-1.8 UZR/150 0 DRS in the OF career) nor is he playing the outfield well this year with a -3.1 UZR rating and a -1 DRS.

After ostensibly ripping Morse a new one, however, I am still inclined to say that he should be playing everyday. I think the Nationals would net more production (defense included) with Roger Bernadina in center, Morse in right, and Nyjer Morgan on the bench. I know this is almost certainly not going to happen, but it is worth considering in light of how well Morse has played this season, inflated or not. At the very least, The Code would make a very decent replacement for Adam Dunn if the Nationals trade him, which I hope they will. But that is an issue that will have to wait for another article entirely.