Kendry Morales: Big Cat II? And Do Projection Systems Penalize the Angels for Being Good?

So, in honor of Mr. Granny McSlammy from tonight, let's continue with our modified-comp exercise and take a look at who throughout baseball history has more or less hit like Kendry Morales in more or less the same opportunities at basically the same age. The methodology is explained in this post about Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis.

#comps: 16
topper: .253/.378/.445, 126 OPS+ Andre Thornton
middle: .281/.348/.477, 115 OPS+ Chris Shelton
ourboy: .283/.334/.505, 116 OPS+ Kendry Morales
bottom: .284/.323/.427, 106 OPS+ Andres Galarraga

Any other interesting people on this list? Frank Torre (Joe's brother) is there, for some reason. So is Hee-Seop Choi.

Top-125 Rankings in Bill James' 2001
Historical Abstract? Andres Galarraga 42, Andre Thornton 50, Zeke Bonura 114.

In your heart, you know this comp is right: This is a really tough one to pick, but I'm going to go with The Big Cat. But first, let's cogitate a bit on why it's tough, since it may just provide a window into why preseason projection systems consistently underrate the Angels.

As in the Mike Napoli case, Kendry Morales is a guy whose talent is such that the typical ballplayer with his offensive skills will have many more plate appearances through his age-26 season. If you change the search parameters so that there's no upper limit on plate appearances, and a lower limit of just 565 (half of Kendry's 1029), then you get 65 players, not 16, with a median # of PAs at Bill White's 1771 instead of Babe Borton's 1023. Basically, we'd expect players of Morales' and Napoli's offensive caliber to have another full season worth of ABs under their belts, but they didn't because the Angels were a great team as they were breaking into the big leagues, with competing talent at their chosen positions.

Why does this matter to projection systems? With the important caveat that I haven't actually lifted the hood on the formulas they use (and would love to get a comment on this from RallyMonkey5), it's a safe bet that they penalize a guy like Kendry for not having more than 1029 plate appearances through age 26. After all, first basemen with 1771 plate appearances by that age, all else being equal, tend to be much better players. But Kendry Morales didn't have a starting job before 2009 because Casey Kotchman and Mark Teixeira were ahead of him, and the Angels just haven't been in a situation (outside of parts of 2006) to "let the kids play." For this reason, (in addition to Kendry's less-than-stellar part-time numbers before 2009), Morales' comp list is filled with guys who never once even qualified for a batting title (Chris Shelton, Hee-Seop Choi, Frank Torre), and others who never produced an OPS+ of 127, let alone Kendry's 2009 mark of 137 (this includes the three aforementioned players, plus Rico Brogna, Ray Sanders, Babe Borton, Mike Jacobs, Buck Jordan, and Dick Gernert). Those guys aren't useful comps, at all. It would be interesting to look at the gap between projection and performance of the Angels' young players in particular during the past five or so years, and see whether that comes close to explaining why the systems consistently get the team so wrong.

Who's left on Kendry's list? I'm kind of partial to Zeke Bonura, an unsung 1930s type who got his first shot at the late-ish age of 25 and responded with a monster .302/.380/.545 line (133 OPS+), followed by two seasons that drew MVP votes. Bonura basically had six great years, one mediocre one, and then WWII came and that was that. Baseball Reference's "Bullpen" wiki says he "was known to lack effort as a fielder," and "often would simply wave his glove at ground balls as they came past, what became known as 'the Bonura salute'" ... which doesn't align with the hard-working Morales, so let's move on. Gordy Coleman is a decent (if depressing) match, but he was basically a platoon player. Andre Thornton was much more of a low-average, high-OBP guy than Kendry. Which leaves us with ... Andres Galarraga!

Like Morales, Galarraga had the misfortune to come up just behind a sweet-swinging, good-fielding lefty (Terry Francona) on an organization that expected to contend every year (the early '80s Expos). Francona eventually fell aside due to injuries, and Galarraga finally seized the job at age 26. Like Morales, he was a big dude from the Caribbean with a puffy-looking face and junk in the trunk, a reliable .300 swing, lots of strikeouts and not so many walks, and heavy doubles power to begin with. The Big Cat finally started to hit the ball over the fence at age 27, Morales at 26. Both surprised people with their nimble defense. I'm not sure what happened to Galarraga between the ages of 29-31, but he had a pretty great career overall, even adjusting for Colorado inflation. We will be fortunate indeed if Kendry even comes close to the Cat, but it's totally within the realm of plausibility, not least because Morales was a better hitter through age 26.

Other interesting facts about this group? Did you know that Andre Thornton was traded four times in four years before his age-27 season, and each was among the more asinine baseball swaps you ever did see? I know it has squat-all to do with the Angels, but I can't resist sharing.

Only the first trade even begins to make sense. In 1972, a year in which the 22-year-old Thornton hit .290/.380/.547 at AAA, the cellar-dwelling Philadelphia Phillies traded him at mid-season, along with 35-year-old reliever Joe Hoerner (coming off six straight great years), to the Braves, for a couple of 27-year-old pitchers, Jim Nash and Gary Neibauer. The two new Phillies went 0-10 the rest of the year, and were both out of baseball by 1973. The thin rationale -- the Phils then were playing a first baseman (24-year-old Willie Montanez) in CF, rarely a good idea, and had 26-year-old Tom Hutton at 1B as well. Greg Luzinski was already holding down the oaf slot in the outfield, so there really was no place for Thornton to go.

The second trade, believe it or not, was even more lopsided, and contained zero detectable sense. In May of 1973, the Atlanta Braves for some reason decided that they needed to stop playing 27-year-old outfielder Mike Lum (who was hitting .315/.374/.472, on the way to a career year) at first base. At the time the team was 15-21, 8 games out of first place, with no reason to believe they could ever contend. The outfield was spoken for in the form of two good young players (24-year-old Dusty Baker and 27-year-old Ralph Garr), and one great old fogey (39-year-old Henry Aaron). To get Lum regular at bats he needed to play first base. And if he really was just a walking meat-cleaver at the position, he could play part-time as the 4th outfielder, and you could install at 1B the 23-year-old AAA guy with an .890 OPS, Andre Thornton.

Instead, they traded Thornton to the Cubs for Joe Pepitone.

Adjectives have not yet been invented to describe how idiotic this trade was. Pepitone was an old 32, and hitting .268 with no power as a platoon 1Bman in Wrigley Field. He was coming off a similar .262 part-time season the year before. He was a notorious, irredeemable jackass. The Braves put Pepitone in the lineup for exactly three games, immediately got sick of him, put Lum back on first, and released Joey Blow Dryer within a month. Thornton made his Major League debut for the Cubs in July, racked up an OPS+ of 123 the following year, on the way to a 253-homer career.

But wait! The Cubs made a lousy Andre Thornton trade, too. After putting up just sick numbers in 1975, when his OPS+ of 158 was second only to MVP Joe Morgan, Thornton stumbled out of the gate in 1976, hitting .227 after the first month, though he was still walking enough to have a terrific on-base percentage of .409, and extra-base-hitting enough to have a slugging percentage of .394. The Cubs, who were in the middle of a long stretch of not contending, then did something extraordinary: They benched their 26-year-old first baseman with the lifetime OPS+ of 139, and gave his job to an unholy lefty-lefty platoon of the inaccurately named Champ Summers and the aptly monikered Pete LaCock. I swear to Harry Caray I am not making this up.

After two weeks of this idiocy (during which they won just three games), the Cubs traded Thornton to the Expos for 30-year-old no-hit 1B/LF Larry Biittner, and mediocre 31-year-old swingman Steve Renko.

That brings us to trade four. Thornton continued his slump at Montreal, hitting .191/.304/.388 (which nonetheless translated to a 92 OPS+ in the run-starved environment of 1976) in a half-time role for baseball's worst team. With nowhere to go but up, some young talent bubbling to the surface, and a new manager (Dick Williams) coming in who was famous for nurturing young hitters, you might think Thornton would be given some room to bounce back. After all, he was still sporting a lifetime OPS+ of 126, which is really damned good.

Instead, the Expos traded Thornton for 34-year-old nobody pitcher Jackie Brown. Brown went 9-12, then retired. Thornton hit 175 homers over the next seven seasons.

In 1977, the Expos improved by 20 games. They had one of the four outfields in the history of baseball where guys (mostly Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, and Warren Cromartie) aged 23 and younger started 400 games. (Two of those teams were the 1910-11 Red Sox, preparing a four-World Championship run, and the final one was ... the 1966 California Angels!) Gary Carter and Larry Parrish were also 23, Steve Rogers was just 27, and Tim Raines was just around the corner. Imagine anchoring that offense with a 27-year-old who would post a 149 OPS+ that year, and top 113 for six out of the next seven seasons!

Instead, the Expos had to trade for 35-year-old Tony Perez. Thornton out-homered Perez 87-46 the next three seasons, and those talented Expos never did get over the hump.

What was it about Andre Thornton? Was he a clubhouse cancer? Bill James describes him as "a hard-working, respected clubhouse leader." Terrible in the field? We are talking about first base here. I don't remember Thornton having any kind of toxic rep, though I was 8 when the last of those trades were made. Dick Williams sheds no light in his entertaining bio, beyond generally praising Perez. Whatever the reason, I wonder if any other good player has ever been involved in not two, not three, but four absolutely, ridiculously lopsided trades like that?

Oh yeah, this entry was about Kendry Morales, right? Let's take a poll!

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