Morel showing off 'controlled aggression' for Cubs

April 8th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian's Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SAN DIEGO -- The start of every baseball season is filled with statistical noise. Some early developments are real and some are not. And it can be difficult to decipher which bits of small-sample data are showing an early trend or simply displaying an anomaly.

As the Cubs have moved into their second week of games, has provided one of these early-season puzzles. Known as a free-swinging slugger, the 24-year-old third baseman has shown off a more disciplined approach, increasing his contact rate while maintaining his power.

The question is whether Morel can keep it going.

“For me right now, it's more my mentality,” Morel said, “It’s having more confidence in, like, ‘You've got one pitch. Wait. Find it.’ When I go to home plate, I'm concentrating more. All my teammates tell me, ‘Hey, you've got everything. You can hit the ball really hard. You can drive it. But you need to trust that approach.’"

Through the first nine games of the season, Morel has four strikeouts in 38 plate appearances, giving him a 10.5% strikeout rate out of the gates. Given that Morel posted K rates of 31.0% in ‘23 and 32.2% in ‘22, the current clip is unlikely to be sustainable. Likewise, his contact rate is 84.5% -- up from 65.6% in ‘23 and 63.4% in ‘22.

The dramatic drop in swinging-strike rate (8.3%, compared to 17.1% in ‘23 and 18.1% in ‘22) has helped Morel to a strong start. Through Chicago’s first nine games, he has a .306/.342/.528 slash line to go with two homers, one triple and five RBIs.

“Really since the start of Spring Training,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said, “to me, it's just been hard-hit balls and a real controlled aggression, is the best way I’d describe it. There hasn't been chase. … He's done a really nice job of that and that's just going to make him really dangerous, because obviously there's hard, hard contact in there.”

How has Morel been doing it? Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said “it sounds simple,” but it has really boiled down to Morel getting better at swinging at the pitches he should be attacking. Chicago’s hitting group has worked with Morel on developing a game plan for each at-bat, and having him focus on not veering off the plan.

That is sometimes easier said than done for a young player in the big leagues.

“It is,” Kelly said. “And I think the way that Chris plays the game, he wants to go out there and impact the game and bring energy. And the way that he's done that in the past is launching balls out of the yard and hitting balls really hard and far. And he's been able to do that. And we saw him do that last year.

“This kind of revamped approach and a different kind of accountability when he goes up there each at-bat, it's made him so much more of a complete hitter.”

Counsell cited the approach used by Rangers shortstop Corey Seager, who is an aggressive hitter with strong plate discipline. In an era in which many pitchers want to get to two strikes as fast as possible, a hitter like Seager tries to attack early-count pitches in the zone.

“I think in a little small snippet here, that's a little bit of what you're seeing with Christopher,” Counsell said. “That's a little bit of the approach he's taking and it can be a very successful one with how some of the league is pitching right now.”

Baseball Prospectus did a deep dive into Seager’s style of hitting in November. One surface-level stat involved is looking at the difference in swing rate on pitches in the zone (Z-Swing) and swing rate on pitches outside the zone (O-Swing). Seager’s career rate is 49.1% (81.1% Z-Swing minus 32.0% O-Swing). MLB as a whole was 37.4% (Z-Swing minus O-Swing) in ‘24, entering Sunday.

Here’s a look at Morel’s career progression (2024 rates) in that category:

2024: 62.4% (88.1%-25.7%)
2023: 41.8% (74.2%-32.4%)
2022: 39.6% (72.8%-33.2%)

“He's so locked into where he's looking and why he's looking there,” Kelly said. “And that's probably been the biggest thing for him so far this year, is the way that he talks about the game planning and the way that he talks about his approach. … He’s putting himself in much better counts and forcing guys to come to him. And it's been awesome.”