When the Milwaukee Brewers acquired Nyjer Morgan from the Washington Nationals for single-A outfielder, Cutter Dykstra, Morgan was coming off of a down year in which he was branded as a legitimate head case. He steamrolled a few catchers in blowout games, he missed a catch and threw his glove into the stands, he charged the mound and threw some punches at Chris Volstad, and he was even accused of throwing a ball at a fan.
Needless to say, Morgan was becoming a problem, and Washington was ready to run him out of town.
Even if we push his personality issues aside, Morgan still had a less than stellar 2010 campaign. Entering the season, he was a career .302 hitter. In 2010, he hit just .253. He was clearly a player who lost his way, and it was easy to see why Doug Melvin might want to take him on as a reclamation project. Especially since the Brewers were ready to run Carlos Gomez, he of the wiffle bat, onto the field every day. So I set out to see what Nyjer’s problem was at the plate, and what he could do to correct it.
In April I wrote this piece and basically surmised that Morgan’s BABIP dropped 50 points because, at least partially because, he was swinging at far more pitches outside of the zone than he had in years’ past.
He only had a 5% uptick in his O-Swing rate, probably not enough to account for a 50-point drop in BABIP. However, swinging at bad pitches can certainly result in more outs, sparking a drop in BABIP. Swinging at pitches outside of the zone could theoretically cause a player to feel lost at the plate and eventually lose his swing, snowballing into a bad offensive year.
Since then, Doug Melvin has been proved himself to be an oracle, and Morgan has built a cult-like following in the city of Milwaukee. He literally went from being seen as a certifiably crazy, underachieving, clubhouse cancer, to a .300-hitting clubhouse favorite who just happens to be a focal point of the team’s marketing campaign.
I finished the April article with, "if he wants to return his batting average to .300 as a Brewer, he’s going to need to lay off of pitches outside the zone." Since then, Morgan has restored his BABIP to a career-best .364, and his AVG to .306. So I took a look to see if laying off of bad pitches is indeed what happened in 2011, only to find that he’s actually been swinging at an extra 4% of pitches outside the zone. He’s also been swinging at more pitches in the zone, and making better contact with all pitches.
Now, there’s a difference between being wrong, and simply not being right. Sometimes that difference is obvious, and sometimes there is a thin, cloudy line to be toed. In this case, by saying that he has to improve his plate discipline, even though I conceded that it was only part of the problem, I was completely wrong.
But what was the problem? After digging a little deeper, I noticed that Ron Roenicke’s strict righty/lefty platoon in Center Field has resulted in only 45 plate appearances vs. LHP for Morgan. That’s just 11% of the time. Last season, Morgan faced Lefties 26% of the time.
For a guy who has hit .202/.290/.561 vs. LHP, and .310/.362/.765 vs. RHP (AVG/OBP/OPS), it’s easy to see how Doug Melvin might have envisioned a bounceback year for Morgan. It’s even easier to accept that a platoon is the correct usage of a player like Nyjer Morgan, especially when a team has a defensive phenom like Carlos Gomez holding down the other end of the platoon.
Morgan is certainly having more fun this year, and maybe that’s helped his hitting. Or maybe he’s having more fun because he’s been hitting better. Either way, he probably wouldn’t be hitting nearly as well, or having nearly as much fun if he wasn’t being used in a platoon.