Especially a certain first baseman straight outta the New West. Justin “Ernest George” Morneau is slugging .695. He has an on-base percentage of .489, and a weighted on-base average of .502. His isolated power is a Barry Bonds-like .318, and he is either leading the league, or at least in the top five, in nearly every offensive category there is (he’s even leading the reigning batting champ by 29 points in the title race). He is the best hitter in the American League right now, and is already the early favorite to win the AL MVP. He’s certainly making the “Justin-Morneau-is-the-most-overrated-player-in-baseball” crowd (yes, I know, I was in that group) shut up for a minute. The question is, of course, how long will he keep this up?
Hot starts are nothing new for the Mountie, and unfortunately, neither are cold finishes. Since 2007, Morneau has completely disappeared in the second half. Last year, he batted .311/.390/.575/.965 before the All-Star break, then saw his production fall below replacement-level (.201/.310/.402/.763) afterwards. Morneau was diagnosed with a back fracture in September, which was hardly surprising given his Buterian .077/.178/.179 line in that month. It was the same story in 2008 (.353/.391/.512/.963 pre-ASB and .276/.350/.481/.831 post-ASB), and again the year before that. It’s also no secret that Morneau rarely ever gets a day off. Since his major-league debut in 2003, Morneau has played 820 defensive games, and while first base may not be the most physically demanding position to play, it’s clear that he needs to sit once in a while. His tendency to fade down the stretch has actually lead to speculation that Morneau is suffering from undisclosed back problems, a theory that might have some validity if he suffers yet another second-half slump.
Of course, even if he isn’t overworked and manages to stay healthy, Morneau isn’t likely to continue this level of production forever. I mean, nobody gets on base at a .489 clip who isn’t named Barry Lamar Bonds. His batting average on balls in play is .434! (the league-average is .297). While BABIP is sort of a lazy way to measure a hitter’s luck, a BABIP nearly 120 points over the league average means that Morny is bound to come back down to earth a bit eventually. Even though his line drive rate is up quite a bit (to about 20%, from his 17% career average), his overall contact rates on all pitch types are right in line with his career averages, so it doesn’t look like he’s actually making better contact. He is showing a bit more patience at the plate, boasting a league-leading 1.07 BB/K ratio and chasing only 27% of pitches outside the strike zone (down from his typical 29.4), but that might be because pitchers have been reluctant to give him anything to hit. Let’s just hope Morneau doesn’t get fed up with guys trying to pitch around him and start waving away at pitches outside the strikezone.