Advanced metrics can tell us a lot about a player, and can act as more predictive instruments than traditional stats to give clues as to how a player may produce in the future. If you have a pitcher with a hilariously high BABIP, good strikeout to walk numbers and a high ERA, you can be relatively confident that things the pitcher doesn’t control - balls in play - will normalize over time, the strikeouts and walks will stay roughly constant, and the ERA will fall.
That’s how this works for 99% of players, but there are outliers in every dataset. Sometimes, a player effectively over or underperforms for long enough that the metrics end up clouding things more than they end up clearing. Yankee fans are very familiar with this kind of player - Mariano Rivera was one.
The greatest relief pitcher of all time didn’t have the greatest strikeout stuff ever, he struck out batters at “just” 28% above league average over his career, the 202nd best mark among relievers all time. His cutter was able to consistently generate soft contact, though, and that was the key to his success. He outperformed his metrics so often and so consistently that we have no choice but to say his contact generation was a skill, and not just luck.
Then there are the players that go in the other direction, ones who so consistently underperform their metrics that the disappointing output could be considered a macabre skill on its own. Michael Pineda is the poster child for this, but unfortunately for the Yankees, they’ve just acquired another guy who fits the bill too.
Kendrys Morales has long been a Statcast darling, and it’s pretty obvious to see why:
This is the Statcast leaderboard for 2018, sorted by average exit velocity. Morales is one of the elite in the game at generating hard contact - his average EV is virtually identical to players like Khris Davis and Christian Yelich. That’s really good!
Yet Davis has a career 125 wRC+. Yelich has a career 133, and last year was the NL MVP at 166 wRC+. Morales is a career 111 wRC+ hitter.
It’s not like last year was an aberration for Morales in either average EV or wRC+. He’s been in the top 20 average exit velocity across all MLB every year since 2015. In those four seasons he’s compiled a 112 wRC+. Just like our old friend Michael Pineda, Morales can’t produce at the level that his most basic metrics say he should.
So the question is why? It’s one thing to recognize that Morales is a chronic underperformer, it’s another to establish an explanation. The answer, as I see it, is twofold.
First, Kendrys’ quality of contact is spectacular from an exit velocity point of view. In all other facets, it is dreadful:
The man hits the ball on the ground nearly half the time. He’s a DH/1B type, the type of player paid specifically to drive the ball into the alleys or over the fence. Yet he really struggles to get the ball off the ground and thus, do any damage with it:
There’s obviously a very high correlation between getting more balls in the air and being more productive with them. Kendrys Morales can’t do the former, so he’s going to struggle with the latter.
But wait, there’s more!
Not only does Morales struggle to drive the ball with authority, he is possibly also historically slow:
Not only is Morales the slowest guy on the team by far, he also hits so many balls on the ground that he creates too many outs to be particularly useful. See that blue dot all the way on the far right? That’s Tyler Wade. He is crazy fast, the fastest guy on the team. It’s not good to hit groundballs but if you’re going to do it, be the fastest guy on the team.
Now I know the easy rebuttal is “well the Yankees can change Morales” and they could! They could find a way to unlock more loft in his swing and get more balls in the air, where his still-elite contact quality would go a long way in helping the team.
In fact, some might even make the comparison to another pickup with elite contact, Luke Voit. Voit was similar in that he was underperforming his raw contact skills, but that’s about where the similarities end. With the Cardinals in Triple-A last year Voit’s FB-GB% was -5.4%. With Scranton it was 9.1%, and in the big leagues between both teams it was 2%. Voit consistently got the ball in the air more than on the ground, and it was only a matter of time before his great contact led to him doing damage at the plate.
For Morales, the last time he hit more fly balls than ground balls was 2008. The last two seasons he has averaged a -12.4% FB-GB%. He just doesn’t make the right kind of contact to optimize his exit velocity, and he has failed at that for so long that it’s really hard for me to fall in love with the top-line Statcast metrics. He is Michael Pineda with a bat, and I’m really not looking forward to it.