Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Why is Bernadina the presumed LF Starter over Morse?


Morse did nothing but mash in 2010. Why are the Nats trying so hard to NOT use him in 2011? Photo

(Ironically, as I was penning/researching this posting all three leading Nats beat writers wrote similar articles.  Hmm.  Perhaps we’re all onto something.  Here’s links to Zuckerman, Goessling and Kilgore‘s similar articles.  Something must have happened in camp today…)

(Coincidentally, i’m also assuming that Rick Ankiel is a backup/fall back plan and nothing more.  He’s had exactly ONE impressive hitting season and was worse than Nyjer Morgan last year splitting time between the Royals, the Braves and the DL.  But it is concievable that Ankiel is “competing” for the LF job as well).

Mike Morse turned out to be one of the bright storylines for the team at the plate last year, posting a very respectable 2010 slash line of .289/.352/.519 and hitting 15 homers in just 293 at bats for a season OPS+ of 133 (3rd on the team behind Dunn and Zimmerman, just ahead of Willingham).   He’s a former infielder who moves around well despite being a big guy and can play four positions relatively easily (both corner infield and both corner outfield positions).

Roger Bernadina meanwhile posted this 2010 slash line: .246/.307/.384 in 461 plate appearances.  He had 11 homers and provided very good outfield defense with capabilities at all three positions.

So, given that the Nats traded away two of their best four hitters last year and clearly seem set to take a small step backwards in offensive production, why exactly is the presumed starter in left field not automatically going to be Morse?

The arguments i’ve heard are variations of three themes: lefty-righty splits at the plate, defense and balance of our lefty-righty hitters on the bench.  Lets discuss each item.

1. Lefty-Righty Splits: the knock on Morse is that he cannot hit right handed pitchers.  He mashes lefties but struggles against righties.  Is this true?  According to his 2010 splits, he clearly hits lefties better (he hit .295 versus .287 against right handers) but more significantly his slugging percentage split is significantly different (.466 versus .625 against lefties).  So clearly he doesn’t hit for as much power against right handers.

The thing is, his performance as a righty versus other righties is still pretty good as compared to the league.  His “sOPS+” values (sOPS+ being his Split league adjusted OPS value) was 126, meaning that he’s about 26% better than the league average for righty-righty matchups.

So, lets quickly look at Bernadina’s splits.  Turns out, Bernadina actually hits lefties BETTER than righties, but his best slugging figure (.429 against lefties) is worse than Morse’s weakest slugging figure.

Conclusion: Morse may be slightly weaker against righties, but he’s better against either arm than Bernadina.  He is closer to a #5 hitter in terms of power while Bernadina is a #2/#7 hitter.

2. Defense: Bernadina is clearly a better outfielder, and has a fantastic career UZR/150 rating in left.  He posted a 13.3 for 2010 and has a career 11.8.  Meanwhile Morse isn’t exactly Reggie Jackson patrolling left field but he’s not bad either.  In very limited LF career stats he has a 15.2 uzr/150 rating in left.  He’s significantly worse in Right … but then again that’s why we bought 7 years of Jayson Werth.

Meanwhile, Morse is also a very good first baseman and has logged time at SS and 3B.  Bernadina is purely an outfielder but can play center in a pinch.

But here’s the thing; you don’t NEED a star quality defender in left field!  Not at the expense of greatly needed offense anyway.  That’s why Josh Willingham still has a job and that’s why Manny Ramirez was able to play in Boston (and in the NL) for so long.

Conclusion: Bernadina’s better in left, but both bring defensive flexibilty to the table.

3. Lefty-Right balance in the lineup.  Morse is a righty, Bernadina a lefty.  Lets look at the probable 25-man roster out-field players.

  • Lefty only: Morgan, Bernadina, LaRoche, Ankiel
  • Righty only: Pudge, Ramos/Flores, Desmond, Zimmerman, Werth, Hairston, Gonzalez
  • Switch Hitters: Espinosa

But, of the presumed starters only Morgan and LaRoche are lefties.  Espinosa switch-hits but he’s probably stuck in the 8-hole until he improves on last year’s tailoff at the plate.  So, if we start Morse we’re looking at a lineup that probably goes L-R-R-L-R-R-R-S-Pitcher.  Three straight right-handed hitters after LaRoche.  If we replace Morse with Bernadina the lineup probably goes L-R-R-L-R-L-R-S-Pitcher, a much better balance.

Of course, we also have one Matt Stairs in camp and people are talking about him making the team as a designated pinch hitter.  I have an awful hard time believing this, but if it happens (at the probable expense of Albert Gonzalez), then having Morse on the bench as a right-handed hitting counterpart to Stairs makes a bit of sense.  Certainly having Bernadina, Ankiel AND Stairs on the bench makes no sense.  But, since Stairs brings no defensive value to the team we’d be incredibly thin at infield backup positions without Morse in the fold.

Conclusion: unclear until we see how Stairs looks in spring training.

In conclusion, there are arguments on both sides for/against either Morse or Bernadina in left.  Perhaps we’ll be surprised by Morse in left and Bernadina in center with Ankiel an able backup (certainly a possibility if Morgan does not improve on last year’s performance).  But I find it hard to believe we’re going to sit Morse over Bernadina or Ankiel at the beginning of the season.

10 Responses to 'Why is Bernadina the presumed LF Starter over Morse?'

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  1. Morse certainly has the bat, but Bernadina is 1) younger, 2) faster, and 3) more versatile.

    I would like to see either Morse take hold of the LF job, and have Bernadina on the bench as the 4th OF, or have Bernadina as the primary LF, with Morse manning the spot against LH starters & selected RH starters in a platoon.

    In my mind, Ankiel is ‘the fly in the ointment’ in LF. Should he have a good spring, the team could be tempted to keep both Ankiel & Bernadina over Morse, due to their RH-heavy starting 9. It’s the same reason Cora is currently getting press-play over AGonz, & Stairs is also getting talked up for a possible spot. They would amount to a series of bad choices, IMHO.

    When a team makes 1-2 bad choices coming out of camp, that can usually be corrected; If a team makes 3 or more, that becomes harder to recover from. Thankfully, the 25-man roster for 2011 looks like there will be only a handful of such decisions to be made, rather than the 12-15 open spots they’ve had in the past.


    25 Feb 11 at 6:53 pm

  2. Rizzo seems to struggle with the concept of Major League offense.
    Last year the Nats had one of the best 3-4-5 combos in the entire majors, but the ‘table setters’ were terrible.
    The response was to get rid of two of the best hitters and replace them with one.
    I think this mentality works against Morse, as all he is is a terrific hitter, precisely the kind of thing Rizzo fails to understand.
    I hope I’m wrong here.

    Mark L

    25 Feb 11 at 7:36 pm

  3. @Mark L,

    Remember, Rizzo specifically asked for and acquired Morse. Not Segway riding Bowden or his Cincinnati Reds crew. Why do you think Rizzo asked for Morse from Seattle?

    Rizzo knows this is Morse’s strength and Morse has done everything in his power to prove Rizzo right … but Riggleman et al weren’t/aren’t convinced. See Willy Harris in every single game double-switched in. Riggleman has made it almost abundantly clear in his “inferences” that Ankiel was his idea. Zero bat but decent backup in all three outfield positions.


    26 Feb 11 at 12:02 am

  4. Peric,
    Certainly hope you’re right on this. I thought Morse was terrific last year, and Riggelman’s chronic underutilization of him was terrible managing. I mean, not even 300 ab’s for him; what else was there for him to do!
    He’s going to be even more vital this year, 2 out of the three best hitters from last year gone.

    Mark L

    26 Feb 11 at 8:21 am

  5. Bernadina may be younger, but only by a couple years. He may be faster … but that only helps him if he’s in center (you don’t have to be fast to play left field). And he is more versatile in the outfield but Morse can play infield too (which Bernadina cannot .. or at least never has at the MLB level).

    I dunno; perhaps its 6 of one and half a dozen of the other. Maybe the way this plays out is Morgan getting muscled out of the picture based on performance and Bernadina playing center. Morse in left, Werth in right and Ankiel is 4th outfielder with great defensive capabilities and a lefty bat with some pop on the bench. That scenario frees up a 25-man spot and would allow us to keep Stairs as PH guy. (not that I agree with it but hey).

    Without Morgan in leadoff though we have a hole in the lineup. Desmond seems like a good #2 hitter. Bernadina may have to go leadoff. Espinosa doesn’t seem to have the bat/speed yet to be considered for anything above the #7 hole.

    Todd Boss

    26 Feb 11 at 10:39 am

  6. “Espinosa doesn’t seem to have the bat/speed yet to be considered for anything above the #7 hole.”

    Espinosa has more than sufficient speed for the lead off spot. What he is missing is OBP, better plate discipline, and adjusting to major league pitching as a switch hitter (this seems to be affecting the first two?)

    The OBP is key. As for Stairs? Sheesh I’d rather keep a slot open and convince Nick Johnson to return to his old stomping grounds. He would make the superior pinch hitter and the perfect backup to LaRoche. After the wrist injury and consequent surgery it isn’t like Nick will be able to play full-time for anyone and in DC he still has a loyal following and he could help the team finally achieve respectability. I’d be watching (and would certainly prefer) this as opposed to 43 year old Stairs from the left-side. Johnson is a gold glove at first base.


    26 Feb 11 at 8:07 pm

  7. Peric,
    Excellent idea on Johnson, hadn’t thought of that. He’s on OBP machine who’s time in the field has come and gone.
    His only chance of making it through a whole season unhurt would be as a pinch hitter.

    Mark L

    27 Feb 11 at 9:04 am

  8. Question about Espinosa? How confident are you that he’s going to live up to his billing? For some reason, despite all his promise and his pedigree something worries me about him. Perhaps it was how quickly pitchers adjusted to him last season and how quickly he went from hitting well to being close to an automatic out. As you say, he needs to adjust as well…

    I like the NJ theory. I agree with that too. Stairs may be a shoe-in for the “extra bench coach” option he brings.

    Todd Boss

    27 Feb 11 at 4:42 pm

  9. I just read in the WP that Stairs was Werth’s de-facto hitting coach last year. If he brings that to the table, that changes a lot of his value.

    Mark L

    27 Feb 11 at 7:35 pm

  10. […] He’s burning his last option as we speak.  He has a career 80 OPS+.  I openly questioned in this space why he was the presumed starter in LF all off-season, and as it turned out I was right about Morse […]

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