I watched Kendrys Morales live and up close for the entirety of the 2013 season and part of 2014. The frustration of watching the Seattle Mariners in person has served to skew my memory of him. I thought of him as a garbage acquisition, who never contributed as a switch-hitting DH. That’s not entirely the truth. Maybe I expected him to be the player he was in 2009, when he finished 5th in the AL MVP vote. Maybe I thought he could return from that freak injury that cut short what was shaping up to be a second straight excellent season.
On May 29th, 2010, home plate jumped up and bit Morales in the leg. The injury, just about a third of the way through the season, would render Morales an afterthought until 2012. It was a big blow to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In 2009, Morales looked to be an offensive cornerstone, when he hit .306/.355/.569 with 34 HRs, 108 RBIs, and a 139 OPS+. In the first 51 games of 2010 he was following that up quite nicely – .290/.346/.487 with 11 HRs, 39 RBIs, and 129 OPS+. Then it was all over.
Nobody expected much when Morales returned in 2012 with the Angels. He had a decent year being part of Mike Trout‘s supporting cast, with a 119 OPS+. That offseason, the Seattle Mariners signed Morales to a one year deal for roughly $5.2 million. That contract was inked after they sent Jason Vargas to the Angels for Morales. Initially it didn’t look like the kind of acquisition you grumble about; Vargas was a #3 starter at best and the M’s dealt from depth to pick up some offense. Morales responded by giving the M’s a fairly productive season. In 2013, he hit 23 homers and 80 RBIs, propped up by a 123 OPS+.
Then, in 2014, Morales didn’t field a contract offer worth his John Hancock until June, when the Minnesota Twins brought him onboard. For 39 games with the Twinkies, he never looked like he’d gotten any rhythm, falling victim to the wonderful fact that certain free agents come with the penalty of a lost draft pick. He struck out almost five times as often as he walked and produced an OPS+ of 64. Yeah, you read that right, 64. Hilariously, the Mariners traded for him again. Apparently Jack Zduriencik felt that Morales’s struggles with the Twins were really just a product of small sample size. If, that is, Jack Z actually understood that well enough to use it as an excuse. Reunited with the offensive magic of Safeco Field for 59 games, Morales continued to stink it up. He struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line and had an 83 OPS+. At 31 years of age, Morales was quickly looking like a washed up slugger already playing the bulk of his games as a DH.
With his recent decline in mind, I laughed out loud when the Kansas City Royals signed him for two years and $17 million. I guess I underestimated Dayton Moore and his team’s ability to evaluate Morales’s value. So far this season, they are getting 2.3 WAR for $6.5 million. If, per FanGraphs, the 2014 offseason market value for one WAR is right around $7 million, then the Royals are getting a serious deal.
What else about this season has convinced me that Morales deserves to be the AL Comeback Player of the Year? For starters, that 2.3 WAR is his third best career year, but also comes on the tail of 2014’s dreadful -1.0 WAR. Then let’s look at his slash line. For 2015, Morales is hitting .292/.358/.485 with 21 HRs, 105 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 127. That is good enough to be his second best full season overall and third best OPS+ since 2009-10. He has already set a career mark for walks in a season with 52 and with 41 doubles, he should be able to set a career mark (anything over 43) with six games left. Then you can stroll over to FanGraphs again and see that his 130 wRC+ this year is second best to his 2009 mark of 136.
So, who’s the competition? Well, Joey Votto, Chris Davis, Prince Fielder, and Carlos Gonzalez are Morales’s biggest challengers (obviously not all in the AL, but for context). Noticeably left off my list is Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez is having a great season on the heels of a 162-game suspension, but it’s doubtful voters would actually consider him with much more palatable options. Of those guys, Votto, Fielder, and Gonzalez all endured injury-plagued seasons in 2014. While this doesn’t automatically discount you from winning the award, I feel like the struggles of Morales and Davis in 2014 make their current seasons look even more impressive.
How does Morales edge out Davis, then? Morales’s overall slash line improvement outdistances Davis’s bounceback, which is even more incredible, seeing as Crush had a .196 average in 2014. Furthermore, Kendrys has nearly tripled his home run production from the previous year. He also has more than doubled his RBIs. In both instances, he’s out-improved Crush Davis. I think you have to further factor in that Camden Yards is a slightly better hitter’s park than Kauffman Stadium. Add it all up and I think Kendrys Morales is the choice for 2015 Comeback Player of the Year.
Oh yeah, he also had a three-homer game, which was the first by a Royals’ hitter in 24 years (Danny Tartabull hit three in 1991).