Biggest Surprises of 2011 – #1: Michael Morse

In the final installment of the five biggest surprises on the Washington Nationals roster, we take a look at the team’s MVP: Michael Morse.

Entering the 2011 season, there was no doubt that NatsTown expected big things out of Morse, who hit .289 with 15 HR and 41 RBI in just 266 at-bats in 2010.  There was no doubt that Morse would get much more playing time in 2011 than in previous seasons, it just wasn’t clear where until 1B Adam LaRoche went down for the season with a shoulder injury. 

After a rough April coming off of an outstanding spring training, Morse simply went on a tear for the next two months, batting .337 with an astronomical 1.060 OPS and 14 HRs in May and June.  If it weren’t for the month of April, when Morse sported a .211/.253/.268 slash line, he would have been a guaranteed All-Star for the Nationals.

Looking back to do some comparative work, Morse’s numbers during his first 5 MLB seasons with the Mariners and Nationals are surprisingly impressive.  He hit .293 with a .764 OPS in 352 at-bats during those 5 years as he went up and down from the majors to the minors.  Despite his above average cumulative numbers, the Nationals somehow traded Morse for Ryan Langerhans, straight up.  Langerhans was older, hitting .234 at the time of the trade, and didn’t ever show signs of serious power.  It was a truly confusing trade that Nationals reaped all of the benefits of.

However, one thing that no one could have possibly seen coming was the monstrous offensive power explosion.   In his first 5 seasons in Major League Baseball, Michael Morse had 6 home runs.  Not each year, but cumulatively.  Even with his promising 2010 season, when he put up 15 homers in less than 100 games, it got better yet in 2011.  He more than doubled his home run total from the previous season from 15 to 31.  He more than doubled his RBI total from 41 to 95.  He also joined Ryan Zimmerman (2010), Cristian Guzman (2008), and Dmitri Young (2007) as the only 4 Nationals to have a batting average above the .300 mark on a season.

Morse also became a de facto team leader.  He had a quirky personality, and a funny superstitious pre at-bat routine.  He always looked like he was having a blast in his post-game interviews, and he was the original Beast Mode, wearing t-shirts displaying those words on camera regularly.

Depending on where you look, Morse was either first (Baseball-Reference) or second (FanGraphs) on the team in WAR for position players.  And he got two votes from the BBWAA in National League MVP voting, one seventh place and one tenth place vote.  Impressive from a guy that was a pinch hitting, substitute player just one season prior.

Morse’s explosion reminds me of Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays.  It’s certainly not the same, as Bautista had 6 years of MLB experience with much more playing time before he won the AL Home Run Title in 2010.  Still, though, Bautista had just 13 homers in the 2009 campaign before his rocked 54 in that 2010 campaign.  He was an All-Star and a Top 5 AL MVP candidate the last two seasons.  Before that, he never got a single MVP vote.  He never made an All Star Game.  Maybe Morse is on a similar trajectory.  After all, Morse is 29, the exact age Bautista was before he broke out of his shell.  The Nationals and their fans can only hope.

That’s it for the Biggest Surprises of 2011 series.  Check out the No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 posts from earlier in the week.  And listen to Episode 2 of Nats Talk On The Go, our new Washington Nationals podcast.

Joe Drugan

About Joe Drugan

Joe is the Managing Editor of The Nats Blog and host of the Nats Talk On The Go podcast. He's been blogging about the Nationals since 2010 and with The Nats Blog since 2011.