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New data shows Morales could thrive in Toronto

Veteran designated hitter was first Royals slugger to hit 30 homers since 2000
March 23, 2017

A mere nine days after the World Series ended, the Blue Jays made the first splash of the offseason, signing designated hitterKendrys Morales to a three-year deal. Given the fact that Toronto seemed to be rushing to fill a spot that made it less likely that both Edwin Encarnacion and

A mere nine days after the World Series ended, the Blue Jays made the first splash of the offseason, signing designated hitterKendrys Morales to a three-year deal. Given the fact that Toronto seemed to be rushing to fill a spot that made it less likely that both Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista could return, and that Encarnacion later signed with Cleveland for a sum far less than most expected, the initial reaction by many was that the Blue Jays had been too aggressive in paying for a nearly 34-year-old bat-only player who contributes little on the bases or on defense.
Perhaps the Blue Jays did. But using our new Statcast™Hit Probability tools, one can easily see what they are hoping for here. In 2016, Morales hit 30 homers for the Royals, with a solid enough .263/.327/.468 line. By itself, those are impressive numbers. Based on the skill Morales actually showed at the plate, he deserved better -- and that's what Toronto is banking on. 
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins alluded to this after the signing, telling MLB.com that "we feel like there's some upside to him coming to the AL East, playing in some smaller ballparks and then being at home here. It wasn't a driving factor, but it did give us some confidence that there would be upside to the bat."
So does the data back that up? There's some evidence that it does. We'll dive into the details of why in a second, but first, here's the top-line takeaway: Morales had a .795 OPS in 2016. Based on the quality of the contact he made based on combinations of exit velocity and launch angle, and including real-world strikeout and walk numbers, his "estimated" OPS was actually .941. That's an enormous difference, and it was actually the largest of any qualified hitter in baseball:
 Largest difference between Actual and Estimated OPS in 2016
.147 -- Morales, Royals
.142 -- Jose Cabrera, Tigers
.114 -- Jose Pujols, Angels
.093 -- Joe Mauer, Twins
.085 -- Howie Kendrick, Dodgers
Of 146 hitters eligible for batting title
Great. Cool. But what does that actually mean?
As we explained in our introductory article, the way Hit Probability works is to get down to the actual skill a hitter showed in squaring the ball up (or not). At the moment of batted-ball contact, when exit velocity and launch angle are measured, you can tell a great deal about how likely a ball is to land for a hit. Whether or not it actually turns into a hit relies on several other factors, like the defense, positioning and ballpark. If a hitter barrels up a ball in a way that it's a hit 90 percent of the time, doesn't he deserve credit for that, even if a great outfielder turned it into an out? If that fielder trips over his shoes and an easy out turns into a hit, does the batter suddenly deserve more credit?
Of course not. Outcomes matter a great deal in individual games, but in trying to build a team for a long season, you're really looking to find skills. So why didn't Morales actually end up with that .941 OPS? And why do the Blue Jays think he might get closer in 2017?
It's a little about foot speed (Morales is never going to beat out base hits or turn singles into doubles, of course), some about great defense and lots about his cavernous former home ballpark.
Let's show you what we mean. On May 29, Morales took a Chris Sale fastball and, for lack of a better term, smashed it. At 105.8 mph exit velocity and a healthy launch angle of 21 degrees, the ball went a projected 402 feet, the kind of rocket that has a Hit Probability of 86 percent. (Or an expected batting average of .860, if you prefer thinking about it that way.)
Of course, the outfield in Kansas City is enormous, with the most square footage in the American League, allowing Chicago center fielder Austin Jackson plenty of space to make an impressive play on the warning track:

The video that leads this piece shows a similar effect. Morales squares up Matt Wisler at 107.7 mph and 34 degrees, a combination that ought to be a hit 89 percent of the time. Unfortunately for Morales, you can see the that right-center power alley there is marked at 387 feet, which is the second deepest in baseball behind only Miami, and the outfielder hauled it in easily. A home run in most other parks, it was an out in K.C.
We can't guarantee that the ball would have been out in Toronto. But looking at the overlay of the two parks, it's extremely easy to see -- particularly down the lines and in dead center -- how much extra space Royals hitters had to clear to get the ball out.

An amazing way to think about it is to simply ask which ballparks had the longest average distance on home runs. Over the two years of Statcast™, Coors Field is unsurprisingly the leader there, with thin air helping push homers out at an average of 422 feet, but second place is actually Kauffman Stadium, averaging 411 feet per homer. While there's of course some impact from player skill, surely the Royals aren't known for their prodigious power, so what that is saying is that in order for a ball to get out in Kansas City, it has to be mashed. There are no short porches like there are in Houston (390 feet average homer distance) or the Bronx (387 feet) to pull down the average in K.C.
Put another way, the Major Leagues batted .815 on balls hit 380 feet or further last year, with the majority of those being home runs. Morales managed to have a dozen 380-foot balls turn into outs, the fifth-highest number in baseball -- nine of which came at home. If you just look at the venue as a whole, balls hit 380 feet or further in Kansas City had the second-lowest probability of turning into hits, just above Detroit. It's extremely hard to be a power hitter there, which is a big part of why Morales' 30-homer season last year was the first by a Royals player since 2000.
Morales is a power hitter, of course. His average exit velocity of 93.9 mph was the eighth highest of the 247 hitters who put 200 balls in play. But it's not just about exit velocity, because as we recently detailed, Ryan Zimmerman hit the ball hard and found little overall success, since he hit the ball on the ground too often. It's about the combination of exit velocity and launch angle, and about making enough contact to put that skill into use.
Hitting 30 homers while playing half your games in Kansas City, as noted, is a very rare occurrence. Perhaps in 2017, a ball like this won't be a sacrifice fly. It might just be a walk-off home run.

That, after all, is what the Blue Jays are paying for -- and they just may get it. For what little Spring Training stats matter, Morales is hitting a scorching .367/.424/1.091 for his new team so far. It's a good start.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.