Projecting Morneau

John Sickels and his growing MinorLeagueBall.com community have been coming up with their own set of 2005 projections for various young hitters. They did Nick Swisher, Dallas McPherson, and Corey Patterson earlier this month, and yesterday they looked into their collective crystal balls for Twins first baseman and cleanup hitter Justin Morneau. Most of the projections were pretty similar to each other and fairly close to the .271/.340/.536 Morneau hit in 74 games with Minnesota last year.

I’m going to chicken out and go along with the general consensus over at Sickels’ blog, along with the .277/.346/.515 average projection Morneau had when I combined the numbers from three different projection systems last month. I think there’s a pretty good chance he’ll hit for a higher average than last season, but with a little less raw power. Morneau’s overall rate stats are going to depend an awful lot on how well he does against left-handed pitching, as well as how much left-handed pitching he faces.

So far in his career Morneau has faced a lefty in about 25% of his plate appearances, which is on the low side, although nothing out of the ordinary for a left-handed hitter. As I looked at last month when discussing Michael Cuddyer, the Twins as a team faced a lefty in 31.4% of their plate appearances over the last three years. And if you’re wondering, Morneau has hit just .218/.264/.366 against lefties, compared to .274/.347/.537 against righties.

To get a feel for what your own projection for Morneau might look like, here is what he has done at each level throughout his professional career:

LVL       G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoD     IsoP     K/BB      SO%
  R      75     .367     .433     .585     .066     .218     0.91     11.1
  A     117     .328     .404     .524     .076     .196     1.58     18.2
 AA     156     .293     .351     .475     .058     .182     2.12     18.0
AAA     143     .288     .362     .559     .074     .271     1.72     18.6
MLB     114     .259     .326     .492     .067     .233     2.27     22.0

There are adjustments that can be made for ballparks and leagues and levels of competition, but those are increasingly difficult to make accurately the lower you go in the minors. Plus, I think the raw numbers are good enough as a starting point. While his numbers have certainly fluctuated, Morneau has been reasonably consistent in Isolated Discipline (on-base percentage minus batting average), Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average), and Strikeout Rate (percentage of at-bats ending in a strikeout).

I think we can safely peg Morneau’s expected Isolated Discipline at around .070 and there isn’t much doubt that he is capable of an Isolated Power in the .200s. That means if he is able to hit .280 in the major leagues, he would have a .350 on-base percentage (.280 + .070) and a .480+ slugging percentage (.280 + .200). And players tend to add both plate discipline and power as they mature, so that is just a starting point for Morneau, who was 23 years old last season.

Of course, you may have also noticed that Morneau’s batting average has dropped each time he has moved up a level, going from .367 in rookie-ball to .259 so far in the majors. For the most part, I think that is to be expected. The important thing to look at is the fact that, while his strikeouts rose in the majors, they didn’t skyrocket. Plus, his batting averages in the high minors (.293 at Double-A, .288 at Triple-A) were essentially the same and not far off from what he has done in the big leagues.

The pessimist in me has a sneaking suspicion that the overwhelmingly high expectations for Morneau are setting him up for a disappointing year, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if he was one of the best power hitters in baseball. The power he has shown over the last couple seasons is really quite remarkable, and the fact that Twins fans are predicting such huge things for him in what will be his first full season in the major leagues is a credit to just how great he looked in 312 trips to the plate with the Twins last year.

Regardless of anything else, given a full, healthy season, I don’t see any way for Morneau to avoid becoming the first Minnesota hitter with 30 or more homers in a season since — get ready for this — Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, and Gary Gaetti all did it in 1987. In the long term, Morneau looks very capable of posting .280-.300 batting averages, on-base percentages in the high .300s, and slugging percentages in the high .500s. That is the type of player the Twins haven’t had in a very long time.

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