Morel eager to stand out among vets in sophomore season

February 23rd, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- ’s batting practice at camp Wednesday generated the buzz of a mini-showcase, with fans whipping out their phones to photograph each cut.

After his final swing sent a ball over the nets in left-center on Field 3 of Sloan Park through 20 mph gusts, a “Tremendo!” rang out from the peanut gallery of teammates surrounding the batting cage. Tremendous power is a part of Morel’s game he hopes to expand upon. He knows he has to improve in other areas, too.

“I just focused on my body this offseason, gaining a little more weight to prepare for the long season ahead,” said Morel, 23, as he prepares to enter his second season. “I focused on understanding home plate. I’m going to try and be as consistent as possible, working to command the plate when I’m at bat.”

His rookie campaign was launched with a bang on May 17, when he sent a 3-2 fastball from the Pirates’ Chase De Jong over the left-field bleachers in the bottom of the 8th, punctuating a 7-0 rout for the Cubs. That moment, immortalized by him missing first base while bursting with excitement as the Wrigley faithful saluted him with a standing ovation, was a microcosm of his peak in '22.

Morel was a revelatory burst of energy, liable to provide a spark in an instant. In 113 games, he hit 16 homers and slugged .433, as 43 percent of his knocks were extra-base hits. He had a penchant for making hard contact -- ranking in the 91st percentile for barrel percentage and 88th in maximum exit velocity -- establishing himself as a threat to leave the yard at any moment. His impact was felt immediately as well, achieving an OPS+ of 147 in May and 123 in June, a stretch skipper David Ross remembers fondly.

“We’ll see how everything shakes out for spring and with health, but I think Christopher put himself on the map last year,” Ross said. “A couple months there, he was swinging the bat really well, and had some adversity in there too.”

That adversity Ross mentions arrived in the form of a rough last half of the season, marked by a high strikeout rate (4th percentile in strikeout percentage) and a struggle to string together hits (.183 average from August through the end of the season). A large percentage of his issues at the plate stemmed from trouble with offspeed and breaking pitches. According to Baseball Savant, Morel had a batting average of .190 and slugging percentage of .355 when pitchers changed speed against him, versus a .277 BA and .511 SLG against fastballs.

“I basically want to duplicate as many [positives] as I can from last season,” said Morel. “Strike out less, gain more walks, and steal more bases.”

Morel’s journey to self-improvement begins among a dense crowd. The additions of Cody Bellinger, Dansby Swanson and Trey Mancini filled holes in the outfield, at shortstop and first, but created logjams elsewhere that will have to be sorted out. Morel, who played six positions in his rookie campaign, is among the four likely candidates competing for playing time at third base.

“I’m continuing to prepare wherever they need me. My job is to go in and play where I’m wanted to win a World Series,” Morel said.

On Wednesday, Morel took ground balls at the hot corner on Field 5, where he logged 141.1 innings, with a .918 fielding percentage in 49 opportunities. He clearly wants to improve and set himself apart from the crowd at the position, but also recognizes that his versatility is what keeps him on the field.

“We’ve got some more established players,” Ross said. “I think he can bounce around the outfield for us as a fourth outfielder, or could be a utility player. He can play pretty much any infield position besides first. There’s a lot of growth potential there for him.”

Morel relishes the chance to build on his rookie year. He beams when asked about Bellinger and his willingness to hang out and interact with the Latino players, noting his attempts to speak Spanish. For Morel, veteran presence isn’t so much a burden to find playing time, but more so a guiding light for a young team.

“[Last year] I learned a lot from the veterans, I learned a lot from Willson [Contreras],” he said. “Then during the offseason, I learned how to be consistent, learned a routine, and how to be disciplined in everything that we do.”