The Colorado Rockies are riding Justin Morneau. He is their everyday first baseman regardless of match-up or of the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher.
Morneau has started 47 of the 53 games this season, indicating that he only sits for routine days off and the toughest left-handed starters (i.e. Madison Bumgarner). For the most part, this plan has worked out well. In many cases Morneau has bailed the Rockies out after injuries to Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez.
Morneau is batting .312/.356/.559 with 10 home runs and 33 RBI so far in 2014. The veteran slugger has seen his production wane as of late, with just a .222 average the past seven days. With that expected regression, Morneau is still having a stellar season, but one that makes more sense because it is propped up by his numbers at Coors Field and his numbers against right-handed pitching.
- At home: .345/.398/.6o7/1.005
- Against right-handed pitching: .344/.394/.640/.1.034
Those are the situations in which we expected Morneau to succeed. It is great that things have worked out that way, but this also touches on the reason why we thought that Morneau was better fit to be a platoon player at first base.
Manager Walt Weiss said Morneau would have the chance to earn playing time against left-handed pitching. To his credit, Morneau did just that (with the Cuddyer injury also a factor). Generally speaking, we have seen Morneau hold his own against lefties much better than I thought he would. Those numbers have crashed down to earth, however.
- Against left-handed pitching: .246/.277/.393/.670
To touch on his road numbers, he has remained solid away from Coors Field: .284/.321/.520/.841. He has five home runs at home and five home runs on the road.
Morneau is doing almost everything. He is mashing the ball at home and on the road, and he is killing right-handed pitching. The issue that is starting to crop up is his production against left-handed pitching, as we all feared it would with Morneau. So here is the question of the day (to which I absolutely do not have an answer):
How long can the Rockies ride Justin Morneau?
They desperately need his pop in the middle of the lineup; the injury to Nolan Arenado and the continued issues for Carlos Gonzalez magnify how much the Rockies need Morneau to produce in the middle of the lineup.
This fact was illustrated beautifully by the fact that Morneau batted third the other night. Third! This guy was supposed to be a bonus, a luxury almost…another big bat in a lineup that already had plenty.
To me it seemed like the Rockies were thinking along these lines: “Hey, if Morneau shows he can still hit like a former MVP, that’s great! But if he doesn’t we’ll still be OK.” Instead he is one of the most important players on the team so far. They have placed much more pressure on Morneau than any of us likely expected they would.
What the Rockies need from Morneau is a bump in his results against left-handed pitching. Even with a dip in his numbers, he has not looked wholly uncomfortable in those at-bats, certainly not the way he did in the seasons prior to 2014.
When he has been successful against LHP, he has kept that front shoulder in and been able to drive the ball. Here’s a home run off Wade Miley:
And here’s a flare off the soft-tossing Paul Maholm. He doesn’t even hit this ball hard, but the approach is what matters.
You don’t have to be a scout to see the problem when Morneau struggles against same-handed pitchers. He flies open and hits a maddening number of weak groundballs and pop-ups, with a bat twirl that just doesn’t seem to match. That has been happening more lately, something that is reflected in the dip in his stats.
It has been a joy to watch Morneau hit so far this year. A hardworking, understated guy, it is great to see him show signs of his old self after it appeared that a concussion and neck injury had derailed his career.
Justin Morneau’s bounce-back is one of the best stories of the year. The Rockies might just ride him as their everyday first baseman for the majority of this season. That will be fine if he bumps his production against lefties up just a little bit. But if he doesn’t, it might tell us as much about what went wrong for the team as it will anything else.
Morneau has proven the Rockies right so far. He has a chance to keep doing so if he succeeds as the everyday player few people expected him to be.