Even before Michael Morse became teammates with Jayson Werth, Morse saw Werth as a player he could emulate, a career path he could follow. They were both 6-foot-5 sluggers. They bounced between positions in the minors. They had both had health setbacks. Morse had not arrived as a major league player. Werth, after years of toil, had.
“And then I signed over here and I take his number and his position,” Werth said, laughing. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Morse can be content wearing his No. 38 and playing left field or first base. He asserted himself as an offensive force last year when he hit 31 homers, batted .303 and drove in 95 runs. After a season in which he almost made the all-star team and received a handful of MVP votes, Morse still sees a reason to emulate Werth and players like him.
“I still think I haven’t made it,” Morse said. “I don’t look at it like that. I look at guys that are consistent. I say those guys have made it. They’ve figured something out.”
Can Morse figure it out? Can he do it again? First things first, he will have to put his strained lat behind him. He received a cortisone shot Saturday to relieve some restriction in his throwing, but he feels good enough that Davey Johnson said he might play as the designated hitter Monday.
Beyond that, Morse believes the certainty of a place in the lineup will help him not only match, but surpass his production last season. “The sky is the limit,” Werth said. “He’s just got to stay healthy.”
Statistically, some underlying metrics are kinder to Morse’s chances as a repeat of 2011 than others. In 2011, Morse posted a .344 batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. Typically, hitters with a BABIP above the league average of .300 are considered lucky. But Morse has proven, because of how hard he hits the ball and how consistently he hits line drives, that his BABIP is more than luck. His career batting average on balls in play entering 2011 was .348. Last year, then, was no fluke.
But another set of stats suggests Morse will have a hard time replicating his success in 2011. Morse struck out 126 times with 36 walks in 575 plate appearances. So he walked once every 15.97 plate appearances and struck out once every 4.56 plate appearances, an exceedingly rare combination for a player with Morse’s production.
Since 1990, there have been 569 individual seasons with at least a .900 OPS, including Morse’s .910 OPS last year. Among those seasons, Morse’s walk rate ranked 551st. Of the 18 players who walked less frequently, only one, Geoff Jenkins in 2000, struck out more often.
Morse will have to strike out less, walk more or challenge the theory that a hitter cannot sustain elite production with a strikeout-to-walk rate like his 3.5-1. He pulled off a rare trick last year – but then, it’s rare to find a hitter who crushes the ball like Morse.
“You just don’t come across a guy who can make that sound and hit the ball that hard,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said.
And because of that, he has almost achieved the same status as Werth. Last year, after becoming teammates, they had conversations about their respective career during the spring. In January, Morse signed a two-year contract worth $10 million that keeps him with the Nationals until he becomes eligible for free agency.
This spring, Werth reminded Morse that the Philadelphia Phillies gave him a two-year deal before he signed his seven-year, $126 million contract. “He’s two good seasons away,” Werth said, “from being what you dream of.”
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