On June 28 Christopher Morel came to the plate to face Aaron Nola of the Phillies and was immediately down in the count 0-2. The Cubs were down 8-2 at that moment, the bases were loaded, and given everything we know about this situation it is totally reasonable for fans to assume that Morel would swing at a questionable pitch, strike out and leave the task of driving in any of those runs to someone else. Instead, he did this:
From 0-2 to a walk against Aaron Nola to bring in a run for Christopher Morel.— Sara Sanchez (@BCB_Sara) June 29, 2023
I am impressed. pic.twitter.com/2mhORDqhO9
It was an impressive at bat towards the end of one of Morel’s best months in the majors so far in his his young MLB career. The walk scored a run against one of the best pitchers in baseball, more importantly it was emblematic of some changes Morel made in June that were honestly so impressive, if they persist they could turn the Cubs utility man into a star.
In case you think that I’m overstating the case, the biggest knock on Morel at this point in his young career is the swing and miss in his game. He has 603 plate appearances (just a smidge more than a full season) and a .249/.318/.489 slash line. His career wRC+ of 120 is 20 percent better than league average. His Isolated Power (ISO) is .238 — which is just in the middle of great to excellent according to FanGraphs. But the lifetime K rate is 31.3 percent, almost too high to be an everyday player
Which brings us to some data, first up Morel’s splits by month along with some key stats since his call up last May:
Morel key stats by month
Christopher Morel struck out a career low 20 percent of the time in June while bumping his walk rate up to a perfectly respectable 9.4 percent. He hit for slightly less power, but that .514 slugging is still well above league average. The league average slashline is .248/.320/.410 with a 22.7 percent strikeout rate and an 8.6 percent walk rate as of this morning.
One key difference for Morel is his approach at the plate when he’s the DH. According to Marquee Sports Network, Morel was spending all of his time poring over tablets and thinking about his at bats — overthinking issues doesn’t always make them better:
So, the challenge for Morel and the Cubs’ coaches was finding a way to get his mind off the mental side of DH’ing. Before the series finale against Pittsburgh on Thursday, Morel turned to first base coach Mike Napoli, who played 145 games in his big-league career as a DH, to try and find a new routine.
That routine meant keeping Morel off the tablets. Instead, Morel is in the dugout while the Cubs play defense, mimicking as if he were out on the field. When the Cubs were batting, he studied the opposing pitcher — how he attacked the Cubs, what he was leaning on and what he turned to in certain counts.
“That’s what Napoli wants me to do,” Morel said. “Instead of going inside, instead of trying to do too much to correct it, to stay active in the game as if I was playing defense.
Morel would also spend less time in the batting cage. He won’t head down until either he’s 4 or so batters away from hitting or due up the following inning. And when he’s down there in the cage, he’s not swinging away endlessly. Instead, he’s taking a few swings and when he connects on a ball where everything feels good and in sync, he’ll head back upstairs to watch the game and be ready to hit.
“It’s about 6 or 7 pitches,” Morel said. “I try to look for the rhythm, the timing, the contact where I’m like, ‘That’s the point I want to be at, now let’s go up.’”
The results were immediate — and eye-opening.
Eye-opening indeed. Whether it was overthinking, keeping his head in the game, or something else. Morel was locked in at the plate during the month of June. I wanted to know what this looked like relative to his plate decisions so I used one of my favorite tools at FanGraphs to overlay Morel’s 15-game rolling strikeout rate with his O-Swing and Z-Swing percentages. O-Swing and Z-Swing measure how many swings a player is taking out of the zone (O-Swing) or in the zone (Z-Swing). Let’s take a look at Morel’s career below:
Every now and again a chart tells a story better than words can. In this instance it shows a few things. First, there hasn’t been a great correlation between Morel’s swing decisions and K rate until this last adjustment. He’s had two other periods where he’s managed to sustain a K-rate around 20 (ish) percent before and in both instances he was more of a free swinger. This time looks different — as he focused on swinging at more pitches in the zone and laying off the pitches out of the zone his K rate dropped. Second, as a result of that change, Morel started doing more damage on the pitches in the zone. In fact, his largest surge in Z-swing happens about the same time he changed his approach this season.
Now, could this be noise? Absolutely, he’s done some of this before and reverted to a high strikeout rate. But, the fact that it correlates with a deliberate change in approach and better results for such a young player could also indicate growth. A Morel who sacrifices a little power for a 25 percent K rate long-term is a really enticing young player.
The best part is, while it impacted his power a little, he was still an elite bat with the swing changes as you can see from this chart overlaying his 15-game rolling wOBA and O-Swing:
As a reminder, wOBA is just a cousin of on-base percentage that gives you more credit for extra base hits. Prior to the last month or so, Morel’s O-Swing and wOBA weren’t all that correlated. Sometimes one went up while the other went down, sometimes the opposite. It’s pretty noisy. But in the last month and change as he cut down on swings outside the zone, his wOBA went up considerably. In other words, he’s making better swing decisions and he’s doing damage with this swings.
Morel is still a very young player. He didn’t come up at age 19 like Juan Soto or Fernando Tatis, Jr. but he still has barely a season of plate appearances under his belt and he’s adapting. There is real growth from season to season here, as you can see from his Statcast percentiles cards below:
The tools are so loud. Morel’s max exit velocity, barrel percentage, sprint speed and arm strength are all well above average. He’s still striking out a lot, but it’s improving and as he does he’s hitting the ball hard more often. His expected batting average has gone from the 25th percentile to the 47th percentile with his expected slugging improving from the 73rd percentile to the 90th percentile in less than a season in the majors. Those are very encouraging numbers and if he can keep this new approach at the plate, Morel could be an elite offensive option for the Cubs for many years going forward.