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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Morneau DHing: Fine by this Fan

To say that Justin Morneau has been locked in the past few games is an understatement. How does 7-for-14 with 3 home runs and a double sound? If this was the regular season, we'd be beginning a campaign for Morneau to win the AL Player of the Week Award. Although these were only Spring Training games, his offensive performance was meaningful in the larger scheme of things. By "larger scheme," of course, I'm referring to Morneau's health. 

We learned over the past several days that what many thought about as a possibility is now a probable outcome, namely, that Morneau will at least begin the season as the Twins' designated hitter and will not be starting at first base. On the one hand, it's a little bit disappointing that the risk of further concussions is always going to factor into Morneau's assignments. On the other hand, though, at least it provides a little bit of certainty for now. We know where Morneau stands, and he's been remarkably candid. Here's just a small portion of what he said to Pioneer Press reporter John Shipley, when asked about playing first base: "Whatever's going to keep me in the lineup, and I know, I said it this spring, too, `if I'm well enough to play, I'm well enough to play first.' I think I have to say that to get myself ready to play the season, and obviously the goal is to play first and be able to, but in the end, like I said, it's going to be about being able to have at-bats. Whatever's going to allow me to have 600-plus at-bats and be healthy enough to play 162 games without, you know, playing two days and needing a day off, or whatever it is. We're not going to go through that whole up-and-down and all the rest of it. I think I can help this team by playing first, but I help us more by being in the lineup every day."
As it stands now, this could be a rare sight in 2012

I think Morneau is correct in the sense that -- if you had to choose one or the other -- his 600-plus plate appearances are more important to the club than his defense at first (though he worked hard to become a great defensive first baseman). Reading between the lines, DHing sounds like a rational decision for at least two reasons: first, as Morneau said, it will be easier on his body to only hit and not play the field; second, and perhaps more importantly, it will reduce the chances of Morneau suffering another concussion, which likely would end his career. I wonder, though, how much Morneau strictly DHing will actually reduce the chances of him suffering a concussion?

In his Twins career, of course, Morneau has suffered two concussions. The first happened in July, 2010, when he slid into the knee of Toronto Blue Jays infielder John McDonald, and the second took place in August, 2011, in a seemingly innocuous play when Morneau, playing first, dove for a ground ball. The resulting concussion was strange because Morneau didn't even hit his head on the ground, but the fall was significant enough to jar his brain to the point that it resulted in another concussion. The more we are understanding concussions now, the more we are realizing that, once a person has suffered one concussion, they are much more likely (perhaps up to four times) to sustain another concussion. 

It's a repeat of Morneau's second concussion that the Twins are trying to avoid, as well as other injuries that could be sustained while he plays the field. How about this play back in 2007, when a Nick Punto throw to first took a funny hop and hit Morneau in the nose, fracturing it. What five years ago was "only" a fracture, today would almost certainly result in a more serious brain injury to Morneau. If you count the fractured nose, Morneau has suffered three head/face injuries in his baseball career: two while playing the field and one while running the bases. 

For the sake of argument, let's say that in 2012 Morneau gets 600 plate appearances and gets on base 35 percent of the time, which would be in line with his career on-base percentage. That means that Morneau will get on base approximately 210 times. Lets subtract 25 of those times on base for home runs. So we're left with 185 times during the season in which Morneau will have to run the bases, and will be exposed to such things as line drives coming at him at first and third, having to execute take-out slides to second, diving back to first to avoid a pick-off, and possibly having to go hard into home plate to score an important run (I'm hoping the Twins caution Morneau not to try to run over the catcher). 185 times on the bases sounds like a manageable number. Add that 185 to the number of plate appearances, 600, in which Morneau will face the unlikely, but still notable, prospect of a beaning, a strange foul ball that ricochets off of home plate, or any other number of unlikely scenarios that could lead to injury. So if Morneau just serves as DH this season, we're left with about 785 times in which Morneau will put himself out there, so to speak.

In 2008, Morneau played 155 games at first, and had 1,409 defensive chances, which are defined as putouts + assists + errors. When I read that now, in light of everything that Morneau has gone through the past 20 months, all I can think is that, by avoiding playing the field -- at least for now -- Morneau is avoiding 1,409 chances of suffering another concussion. He won't have to field errant throws (even though Punto isn't around to break other of Morneau's facial bones), dive for grounders, react to 100 mile per hour line drives hit his way, catch pickoff throws from Francisco Liriano, or teeter precariously on the edge of the dugout stairs attempting to catch a foul pop-up. Chris Parmelee, Ryan Doumit and Joe Mauer can do all those things -- not as well as Morneau -- but well enough for right now to get the Twins through. That same 2008 season, Morneau had 712 plate appearances, and reached base 233 times (he hit 23 home runs, so we'll subtract that number to remain consistent). In addition to the 1,409 defensive chances, that's another 922 chances on the offensive side. In total, then, in 2008 Morneau accumulated 2,331 plays, plate appearances and times on the basepaths. Even though these calculations are rough and imperfect, you don't have to be a mathematician to see the difference between 2,331 and 785, and to understand why the Twins and Morneau, for right now, prefer that lower number. 

The other significant part of this equation -- perhaps the added benefit -- is that Morneau could have a fantastic offensive season. I have always wondered what Joe Mauer could do if he only had to focus on batting. Yes, his best value, far and away, is at catcher, and I know he likes controlling the game, but it's interesting to ponder what he could do as a "professional hitter." Morneau will have that opportunity. His knees and wrists won't be as achy, the bumps and bruises will be fewer, and I imagine he will have more time to devote to batting work and video review than he would during a traditional season. If Morneau can get into the rhythm of being a full-time DH, he could be great in that role.

As a final note, I want to talk about Morneau's value. Some fans, probably not too many that have found their way to this little blog, are going to argue that Morneau isn't worth the $14 million the Twins will pay him in 2012 and 2013 if he is only DHing. If you believe that "value" can be computed, Fangraphs indicates that, last season, when Morneau tried to make everything work, he was worth -.3 wins above replacement, and had a value of -$1.3 million. A negative value. As a full-time DH, if Morneau has a successful and healthy season, he could definitely "earn" his salary. For comparison, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who had a great season in 2011 (.309/.398/.554 with 29 HR and 96 RBIs), was worth $18.8 million. Morneau wouldn't have to quite approach those numbers to break even for the Twins this season.

As it stands, the Twins and Morneau have a plan that will hopefully allow him to play in almost every game, accumulate 600+ plate appearances and focus exclusively on hitting, for right now. Certainly, everything is subject to change, but this fan thinks that, all things considered, DHing Morneau is the safest -- and likely the most productive -- use of his talents. It certainly wasn't "Plan A," or probably even "Plan B," but who among us, in our personal or professional lives, hasn't had to go to "Plan C" in order to try and make things work?

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