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Entries in Justin Morneau (4)


Wainwright's Curveball Key to Bucs-Cards Game 5

The Pirates and Cardinals face off Wednesday night for the 24th and final time during the 2013 season, with a trip to the National League Championship Series on the line. The Dodgers' opponent in the fight for NL supremacy may be decided by whether the Bucs can accomplish something they failed to do in NLDS Game 1: Solve Adam Wainwright's curveball. Pittsburgh has struggled all year along against the curve, though a pair of trade pickups offer hope as the club tries to win its first postseason matchup since Willie Stargell and Dave Parker raked for the 1979 World Series champs.

Pirates batters are slugging a collective .268 against curveballs this season, which is 55 points below the MLB average (.323) and bests only the historically punchless Miami Marlins among all teams. In particular, Pedro Alvarez (.123 slugging percentage versus curveballs), Starling Marte (.237) and Russell Martin (.267) are flailing when pitchers snap off a curve.

For Alvarez, merely making contact against a curve is a coin flip. He's swinging and missing 49.1 percent of the time versus curveballs in 2013, the second-highest clip among qualified hitters (Dan Uggla whiffed 49.4 percent). Pitchers are well aware of his weakness, feeding him the seventh-highest rate of curveballs seen (12.6 percent) among MLB hitters. Unless pitchers hang a curve over the middle of the plate, Pedro's whiffing:

Alvarez's contact rate by pitch location versus curveballs, 2013

Marte, meanwhile, can't resist the urge to hack at curveballs thrown in the dirt. He's chasing curves at the fifth-highest rate (40.2 percent) in the National League. Like Alvarez, Marte's trouble with the curve is well-known: He has seen curveballs 11.8 percent of the time this season, the NL's eighth-highest rate. Marte expands his strike zone to go after low-and-away breakers:

Marte's swing rate by pitch location versus curveballs, 2013

Martin doesn't see as many curves as Alvarez or Marte (9.1 percent of total pitches), and he doesn't share their contact or plate discipline woes against the pitch. It's just that nothing happens when he puts curveballs in play. Martin is hitting a ground ball 62.5 percent of the time versus curves, the ninth-highest rate in the NL. Considering that Martin is a catcher with over 1,000 big leagues games to his name and his batting average on grounders (.228) is way below the big league average (.254), that's not a happy development.

Not all Bucs are scuffling against curveballs, however. Andrew McCutchen (.371 slugging percentage versus curves) and Neil Walker (.378) hold their own, while midseason trade acquisitions Marlon Byrd (.452) and Justin Morneau (.507) crush the pitch.

Wainwright, who throws the fourth-highest percentage of curveballs (27.3 percent) among starting pitchers and has limited hitters to a .230 slugging percentage (11th-best), schooled the Pirates with his signature offering in Game 1. He racked up six swinging strikeouts with his curveball, getting Alvarez, Byrd (twice), Marte, Martin and Morneau to chase out of the strike zone. Bucs batters went 0-for-11 against Wainwright's curve and didn't hit a single one out of the infield. If the Pirates are going to play for the pennant, that has to change in their Game 5 rematch.


Morneau Worried About Baseball Future

Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau's career reached its apex during the first half of the 2010 season, as the Canadian with the killer uppercut swing put up a .345 average, a .437 on-base percentage and a .618 slugging percentage through early July. The slugging came to an abrupt halt, however, after he suffered a concussion sliding into second base on July 7.

Since then, Morneau has played in just 69 games while dealing with post-concussion symptoms, surgery for a herniated disc in his neck and a trio of procedures for a cyst in his knee, bone spurs in his foot a left wrist tendon injury. His line over that time? .227/.285/.333. Now, the Minnesota Star Tribune's Jim Souhan notes, Morneau is pondering his future:

"Well, I don’t think there will be a career if it’s something I’m dealing with,’’ he said. "That’s the reality of the whole thing. I’m obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point where you can only torture yourself for so long."

Before his concussion woes, Morneau's slugging hot spot in 2010 was practically the entire strike zone. Unless pitchers caught the outside corner, they were toast. Check out his in-play slugging percentage by pitch location that year:

Morneau's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2010

In 2011, though? He only clubbed the occasional low pitch, or cookies that caught the middle of the plate:

Morneau's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011

Morneau hit his fly balls an average of 290 feet in 2010. That's comparable to big-boned mashers like David Ortiz. But his fly ball distance plummeted to just 243 feet this past year. That's about the same  distance as banjo hitter Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and 10 feet less than that of Ben Revere.

His plate discipline was affected, too. Morneau's rate of chasing pitches out of the zone increased from 30% in 2010 to 34%, with more swings on low-and-away and high-and-away pitches in particular:

Morneau's swing rate by pitch location, 2010 Morneau's swing rate by pitch location, 2011

Without either of the M&M Boys healthy last year, the Twins brought up the rear in run-scoring among American League clubs. Morneau still has two years and $28 million left on the extension he signed back in 2008 and the club's biggest offseason bat added to the lineup was Josh Willingham, so Minnesota desperately needs their now-30-year-old first baseman to start slugging again.


Spoiled M&Ms

As the Twins play out the string, looking to end an eight-game losing streak and avoid the ignominy of a 100-loss season, the M&M boys watch helplessly from the dugout.

Justin Morneau has endured a nightmare year in which he continued to feel the effects of a concussion suffered in 2010 while also having surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. He continued his game of human Operation today by having procedures to remove a cyst from his left knee and a bone spur from his right foot. Joe Mauer, meanwhile, missed time with leg weakness and a stiff neck and was recently shut down due to pneumonia. Altogether, Morneau (-0.3 WAR) and Mauer (1.7 WAR) made $37 million while combining for 1.4 Wins Above Replacement. Last year, they teamed up for 10.7 WAR.

Morneau never looked healthy or comfortable at the plate in 2011, batting .227/.285/.333 and hitting just four home runs in 288 plate appearances. His strike-zone judgment took a tumble, with his chase rate climbing from 30 percent to 34 percent, and the fly balls that he hit were downright tame. Morneau's average fly ball distance fell from 315 feet in 2010 to just 292 feet in 2011. For comparison, Alexi Casilla's average fly ball distance this season is 296 feet.

With an ailing Morneau unable to drive the ball, his slugging sweet spot low and inside all but disappeared:

Morneau's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2010

Morneau's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011Mauer's offensive malaise wasn't nearly as severe -- his .287/.360/.368 slash in 333 PA was basically league-average production in a year in which run-scoring dipped yet again. But even so, his power declined markedly for the second straight season. Mauer mashed 28 homers and slugged .587 in 2009, and followed that up with a campaign that more closely resembled his previous work (nine HR, .469 slugging percentage). This year, he went deep only three times. Not surprisingly, his average fly ball distance is down, too:

2009: 330 feet

2010: 315 feet

2011: 306 feet

Mauer's biggest problem this season came against breaking stuff. He chased more curveballs and sliders in 2011, and managed just two extra-base knocks:

Mauer Vs. Curveballs and Sliders

2009: 20.1 Chase Pct., .330 Slugging Pct.

2010: 23.8 Chase Pct., .377 Slugging Pct.

2011: 27.7 Chase Pct., .247 Slugging Pct.

2009-2011 MLB Avg for non-pitchers: 30.2 Chase Pct., .361 Slugging Pct.

Mauer hit a ground ball 71 percent of the time that he put a curveball or slider in play, the fifth-highest rate among MLB batters. That goes a long way toward explaining why his overall ground ball rate spiked from under 50 percent in 2009-2010 to over 56 percent. If he's a catcher who dabbles at DH and first base, his bat is still quite valuable. If he's mostly or entirely a 1B/DH, then the Twins are in trouble.

With Morneau owed $28 million combined in 2012-13 and Mauer making $23 million annually through 2018, the hopes of the franchise rest upon their achy backs. The M&M boys need to get healthy. Otherwise, the next decade of Twins baseball could melt right in Bill Smith's hands.