Ham Porter: Hey, Smalls, you wanna s’more?
Smalls: Some more of what?
When it was announced in mid-March that outfielder Michael Morse was in line to win a job with the Washington Nationals, he became a darling sleeper for many. He popped 15 home runs in less than 100 games last year (98) with a solid .289/.352/.519 line in 293 plate appearances. A simple extrapolation made him a mid-30s home run hitter with 600 at-bats. Of course, it’s not always that simple. You couldn’t just pencil him in for 34 home runs assuming that he would keep mashing at the same rate over a full season of work. However, even accounting for some regression, a new power source was available.
Sometimes there are players who work best in limited doses and when they finally win a full-time job, they are overexposed. Ryan Raburn seems to prove this yearly as his strong second halves win him a job for the following year where he falls on his face, loses the jobs, plays sporadically through the early summer before turning it on after the All-Star break, earning a full-time job around or just after the trading deadline and restarting the cycle in earnest with insane August and September numbers.
Morse took his full-time job and gave owners a .182 average by Tax Day (April 15th for the uninitiated) and just .211 by the end of April. He had just one home run, nine runs driven in and four scored with 21 strikeouts against four walks. It wasn’t going well and though it was just 71 at-bats, it was his first 71 with a full-time job out of Spring Training so doubt among even he’s biggest believers began to creep in.
That’s always a bad idea but we see it yearly, especially with unproven guys. People get so hyped about a guy and they psyche themselves into his best case scenario, but then give the guy less than 100 at-bats to prove himself before putting him on the chopping block. It isn’t just with those without a track record, you will see fantasy owners questioning firmly established semi-stars because they get off to a bad start.
Admittedly, Morse’s start was rough and kind of tough to swallow, but in the offense-starved environment we are playing in these days, his power potential still had value and again, we are talking about 71 at-bats! He had a stretch last year from July 24th to August 26th where he posted a .198/.233/.321 line with three home runs, eight driven in, nine scored, 21 Ks and three walks in 81 at-bats. Despite the stretch that was eerily similar to his April this year, he still managed the .289/.352/.519 line that made him a preseason favorite.
Morse has come back in phases. His playing time dwindled a bit, but instead of sulking and letting his season get completely away from him, he got better. (Truth be told, he may very well have sulked, but what he definitely didn’t do was get worse and have what was supposed to be a big season for him spiral out of control.)
First he has repaired his batting average going 12-for-30 (.400) from May 2nd to 22nd still with just a homer, two ribbies and a run. You can only do so much in 30 at-bats, but he piled up hits with four multi-hit games and zero 0-fers in the six games he did start. Then Adam LaRoche hit the disabled list opening a prime playing time opportunity for Morse at first base and in the four games starting at first, he has matched his power output from his 23 games during April.
He has gone 7-for-17 (.412) with three home runs (in three straight games), eight runs batted in and four scored . His season line is up to .281/.303/.447. He’s not walking nearly as much (3.3% against 7.5% in ’10) as he did last year and he is striking out a lot more than he did last year (29% against 24% in ’10), but we are still dealing with a 114 at-bat sample and he’s just now getting into a groove.
I often make the point that you have to be patient with your guys early on and this isn’t necessarily any different. Where it is different is the type of player. If you want to overreact on Carl Crawford and sell low on him, be dumb and do it, there’s a strong chance you will very much regret it by season’s end if not the All-Star break. Same goes for more of a semi-star guy like John Danks. Freak out because of an 0-7 record and elevated ERA and ignore the 608 innings of work that suggest he’s a very good in this league (and that fact that there isn’t a significant skills change within his profile so far this year).
But on someone like Morse or whomever your pet sleeper was this year, why cut bait early? What is there to gain? If you trade him, you’re definitely selling way low because you don’t even believe in him at this point. You might get out from under a struggling star and still get fair market value opting to pass the risk (and potential reward) on for peace of mind, but you’re no doubt getting 50 cents on the dollar to trade Morse when he’s hitting .226 on April 26th.
The question is, did something really change from mid-March through those 71 at-bats taking you from believer to non-believer? If When the answer is no to that question, the next one is, “then why are you giving up?” In most leagues where you rostered someone like Morse, what is going to be available to replace him? Robert Andino (hit .348 in 46 April at-bats; hitting .264 after 91 at-bats)? Gerrardo Parra (.297 in 64 Apr. ABs; .269 after 134)? Aaron Rowand (.294 in 85; .246 after 148)?
Fill in a random slug who had a hot week or 10 days but lacks any real potential instead he just satiates your need to get a Mendoza Line bat out of your lineup so you can feel like you’re making an impact on your roster late in April. Michael Morse might not hit .280-something this year. He strikes out a helluva lot which eats up batting average potential, but over the course of 162 games he is almost certain to get into at least 135+ games barring injury and with his raw power he should hit the 20+ home runs you were hoping for back in March.
So whether it’s a Morse who started slowly but is course correcting of late or a Chris Narveson who you liked as a sleeper and loved until April 25th when he got lit for seven in 2.3 innings (only to rebound before his latest hiccup…) or a Brandon Belt who got all of 52 at-bats to prove himself (Brian Sabean: the fantasy owner?) before getting sent down to AAA (where is straight up raking), if you aren’t going to give your sleepers a legitimate opportunity to pan out (at least mid-June give or take, especially if they’re adjusting to a new role) then don’t even both drafting them. You’re wasting your own time. You’re not allowing for any of the ebbs and flows that come with a 6-month season.
Stick with crusty old vets who you can set your watch to. Some will emerge from year to year and you may get lucky with an Aubrey Huff and Paul Konerko on the same team, but their name recognition won’t send you running for the panic button at the faintest hint of a 2-for-25 stretch. Mostly they will just kind be what they are and you can focus on in-season management instead of trying to win big at the auction/draft. That isn’t necessarily a losing strategy, especially if you’re a nifty trader and good waiver wirererererer. You’re just doing yourself a favor and cutting out the potential for horribly preemptive moves that you will almost certainly regret by midsummer.
Do you want s’Morse? If you want power, then the answer should be yes.