Behind Brent Morel's September surge

Brent Morel hits a three-run shot against Cleveland on Sept. 8.

Baseball broadcasters love it when batters use the opposite field. When a right-handed hitter uses right field, it will be called "a nice piece of hitting." And when a guy hits a line drive to right field in the middle of the slump, they'll point to that swing as a harbinger of fun times a-comin'.

It's a good rule of thumb. It describes Alex Rios' problems perfectly -- he used to collect a fair amount of his hits to the opposite field, and now he pulls everything into the ground. Gordon Beckham is similar, except when he's not driving a fastball the other way, he's missing it completely.

But it's not a one-size-fits-all claim. Some guys need to pull the ball more often. We saw Jerry Owens' career flame out because he fouled fastballs over the third-base dugout. We haven't seen Jordan Danks, and that's one of his problems. It's optimal for a hitter to use the opposite field, but if he can't pull the ball with authority when the opportunity presents itself, it's going to be difficult for that bat to stay in the league.

For four months of the season, Brent Morel had the same problem. He poked the ball to the right side a lot. Those efforts didn't amount to much.

We know September was a different story. Morel blasted eight homers, drove in 19 runs and posted a line that looks nothing like his game, a wild .224/.340/.553.

But August is a fascinating month in and of itself. The .620 OPS doesn't suggest it, but when you look at how he went about it, there were some signs of a breakout on the way.

I went through Morel's TexasLeaguers.com spray charts month by month, counting the number of flyballs he definitely pulled. By "definitely pulled," I basically drew a line from home plate through shortstop playing at double-play depth. Anything to the left of that, I considered a pulled ball.

Here are Morel's total of pulled flies for each month, along with his isolated power (slugging percentage - batting average). You can see him changing his approach before it translated into bona fide production:

  • April: 3 (.058)
  • May: 9 (.094)
  • June: 3 (.029)
  • July: 3 (.024)
  • August: 12 (.105)
  • September: 14 (.329)

In August, Morel finally posted an isolated power number that didn't start with "0" thanks to five doubles, a triple and a homer. But then look where some of his outs landed:

Morel-august_medium

It looks like Morel had three just-missed-its in August -- and checking the individual game charts, they were warning-track shots (two at U.S. Cellular Field, one at Camden Yards). He was about 30 feet of flyball short of people saying, "Hey, it looks like he's figuring out."

And then look at his September charts, and that's where those August homers were hiding.

There were a couple other signs that suggested September didn't come out of nowhere. For instance, he drew more walks in August (four) than he did in the first four months combined (three). More significantly, look how Morel's slugging percentage broke down over the first four months:

  • vs. LHP: .293
  • vs. RHP: .311

And then look what happened over the last two months:

  • vs. LHP: .596
  • vs. RHP: .391

Throughout his minor-league career, Morel consistently hit lefties better than righties. That edge disappeared over four the first four months of the season, which was cause for concern. You can't count on him to light up righties -- he just has to hang in well enough over the course of the season, and make hay when he has the handedness advantage. If he's not doing that, he's not a major-league hitter.

As was the case with his overall numbers, he had some hidden success against lefties in August (.179/.179/.393, three of five hits going for extra bases), and it wouldn't be ignored come September (.368/.478/.895!).

That's what encourages me the most -- over the last two months, Morel began to resemble the hitter that climbed up the minor-league ladder at a brisk, steady pace. The increase in confidence was visible, too, in that he looked less far less concerned about striking out, and more focused on driving the ball.

Now, Morel still has to find a balance. He only hit .233 over the last two months, and if he's doing that for a full season, it probably means he's struggling. But given how defensive he looked early in the season, I don't think an empty .280 would have meant anything. Sure, a better average would have been nice, but I'll take the increased pop, the decrease in grounders, the greater selectivity and the success against lefties as real building blocks toward a credible 2012.

Star-divide

Entirely meaningless split:

  • Morel when Mark Teahen was around: .232/.247/.270
  • Morel when Teahen wasn't around:.254/.316/.440

And here's Morel being invited to speak:

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