After six seasons of largely pedestrian play at the major league level, Logan Morrison enjoyed a huge power breakout in 2017. As he enters the free agent market, he’ll hope teams are willing to believe his newfound success at the plate is sustainable.
Prior to this past season, few would have believed a prediction that “LoMo” would hit as many home runs as a healthy Edwin Encarnacion. Fast forward to October, and those two sat tied for fifth among the American League’s home run leaders (along with Justin Smoak and Mike Moustakas). The Rays first baseman also finished fifth in ISO in the AL.
Morrison’s power breakout came during a season in which he made adjustments to his swing, helping him hit more balls in the air. “Valuing… launch angle and all that stuff — has helped me out a lot,” he said to Fangraphs’ David Laurila back in August. Whatever adjustments Morrison made, they worked like a charm. His fly ball rate skyrocketed from 34.7% to 46.2%; that amounts to a whopping 33% increase in fly balls over last season.
Combined with a slight increase in hard contact, Morrison’s ground ball/fly ball profile quickly went from being one of his biggest weaknesses to his clear biggest strength as a hitter. His HR/FB ratio climbed to 22.5%, up from just 15.2% the year prior. The result was a whopping 38 homers; 15 more than his previous career high back in 2011.
Morrison became more selective this past season, too. His previous career-high walk rate was 10.3%, but the first baseman blew past that total to reach 13.5% this season. And although he has a bit of a platoon split in the power department, LoMo actually walks about as often against lefties as he does against righties. All told, his OBP at season’s end was a respectable .353.
Morrison’s most significant weakness is his contact ability. The lefty-hitter whiffs in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances (24.8%), giving him the 20th-highest strikeout rate among 144 qualified hitters. While he doesn’t often swing at bad pitches, he swings and misses a lot; Morrison’s 73.7% contact rate ranks in the bottom 20th percentile in MLB. The above figures are both downgrades from recent seasons, and clearly demonstrate the double-edged sword of his newfound “swing hard in case you hit it” approach.
LoMo’s suitors can’t count on him for much in the way of defense, either. Fangraphs has rated him as being well below average in every season of his major league career. It’s worth noting, however, that UZR/150 and DRS both pegged him as an ever-so-slightly above average first baseman in 2017 after years of being down on his work, so perhaps there’s not much to worry about.
But above any of that, it would be irresponsible not to consider the risk that Morrison might fail to replicate his 2017 success. Based on his change in approach at the plate it’s certainly possible he’ll sustain this level of production, some might even say probable. Still, it can’t be overlooked that he’s played below replacement level in three of his eight major league seasons, despite the pedigree he carried as a prospect. In fact, his previous career high in fWAR was only 1.1, which isn’t even a league-average performance. There’s always a chance that what looks like a breakout season could end up simply being an outlier, and if Morrison is paid for his 2017 power output, regression to his previous self would make his contract look terrible in retrospect.
Justis Logan Morrison was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His father served in the coast guard, so Morrison traveled a lot during his younger years. He attended Northshore High School in Slidell, Louisiana, and was selected by the then-Florida Marlins after his senior year in 2005. Though he decided to attend community college, he ultimately ended up signing with the Marlins prior to the 2006 draft.
Over the next four years, Morrison climbed steadily throughout the minor leagues. He ranked 20th on Baseball America’s top prospects list prior to the 2010 season; a year in which he ultimately made his major league debut and hit .283/.390/.477. On December 11th, 2013 he was traded to the Mariners in exchange for reliever Carter Capps. Morrison remained in Seattle until November 5th, 2015 when the Rays acquired him in a three-for-three swap.
First basemen haven’t exactly been flying off the shelves this winter, but Morrison got a bit of bad news recently when the Red Sox re-signed Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13MM deal. Boston reportedly met with Morrison’s representatives earlier this offseason; the organization had one of the strongest needs at first base among MLB teams (and one of baseball’s largest budgets as a means to fill it).
On the other hand, the Phillies’ three-year, $60MM agreement with Carlos Santana may actually be good news for Morrison’s market. Philadelphia was never seen as a strong candidate to sign the former Rays slugger, or really a first baseman in general; Rhys Hoskins seemed likely to open the season at first for the club, who will now be pushed to the outfield. Before he signed the offseason’s largest contract thus far, Santana was drawing strong interest from at least ten different teams within the past month, and those teams may now turn their attention to Morrison. He’s the best first baseman left on the shelves who doesn’t come with a nine-figure price tag.
The first base market is still crowded. Eric Hosmer, MLBTR’s third-ranked free agent, remains on the board as the most attractive option at the position. Yonder Alonso comes with a somewhat similar offensive profile, and could compete for attention from Morrison’s potential suitors. Lucas Duda, Mark Reynolds and Adam Lind are still hanging around in the bargain bin. Jose Abreu of the White Sox could still be traded, too.
Morrison has been connected to the Angels, who have already made a flurry of moves this offseason to improve their shot at a 2018 AL West pennant. It makes sense to think they could continue to explore signing him. The Rockies and Indians are both firmly in the market for a first baseman, while the Mariners, Astros and a reunion with the Rays all make some level of sense.
The situation for Morrison doesn’t look much better or worse than it did at the outset of this offseason. The elimination of the Red Sox as a potential suitor hurts, but the average annual value of the contract given to Santana could work in LoMo’s favor during contract negotiations. All told, I think MLBTR’s original prediction of $36MM over a three-year term holds up well to this point.