Major League Baseball and its fans are at a crossroad of ideologies. For decades, the small ball, “old school” method ran supreme. But with the rise of analytically run teams like the Athletics, Rays and Pirates over the past 15 years, SABR-minded “nerds” have been changing how clubs think and evaluate players.
There are a handful of players that both sides can agree are amazing. Mike Trout. Clayton Kershaw. Andrew McCutchen. But once you look past the MVP candidates and the perennial All-Stars, the common ground between the two groups starts to disappear. What is more valuable: RBI or runs? A walk or a hit? Batting average or slugging percentage?
But the Pirates do have one of those players who transcends old and new school right now in AAA: infielder Max Moroff.
So what should make the 23-year old former 16th round pick a future fan favorite between both demographics?
New School: He draws walks! Old School: He has power!
Well, perhaps this needs a disclaimer. He has power for a middle infielder. There was a time in baseball history where that was not a compliment (“You’re the best looking finalist at the Lincoln, Nebraska ‘Gary Busey look alike’ contest!”), but Moroff does carry extra base pop. He has 27 extra base hits this year after recording 41 in 2015. The season before that he clubbed 30 doubles.
The walks, on the other hand, are coming at a phenomenal pace. Plenty of players hit and run their way to the majors. Moroff is going to walk there. And it comes from sticking to a very simple approach.
“If I’m looking for a pitch, being ready for it, but if it’s not, just laying off it,” Moroff said on July 18.
He’s leading the AAA International League with 62 walks (9 more than his closest competition). He has the fourth best walk percentage in all of AAA even though he has at least 88 more plate appearances than anyone in front of him. If you want a comparison to someone he walks as much as, the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter also has a 16.5% BB percentage.
In fact, his walk and power rates are comparable to, or in some cases better than, some of the best hitters currently on the Pirates.
Moroff may not have the isolated power numbers of a Polanco or Freese, but his incredible walk rate makes up for it. There is also a good chance he could develop more power with age; matching his home run total from last year (seven) with a month to go at a higher level is a good sign of that promise.
Old School: He has a good eye! New School: He is pesky at the dish!
While some may argue there are other scenarios to draw walks, the three most common ways to earn a free pass are to: A) Have a good eye. B) Keep fouling off pitches until the pitcher makes enough mistakes. Or C) Have outrageous power and always get pitched around. While Moroff can stake a claim in the third category (again, “power for a middle infielder”), he prides himself in the other two as well.
“I try to put the best at-bat I can and see a lot of pitches. Help the guys behind me out so they can see what the pitcher has,” Moroff said.
Moroff said he believed he had a good eye, but a lot of the peskiness comes from working with his hitting coaches to establish a good foundation at the dish. Not offering at pitches outside of the strike zone is a very old adage, but offering at borderline pitches and fouling them off has its benefits too, especially with two strikes. Moroff is not afraid to do either.
Old School: He’s clutch with runners on! New School: He’s good at creating runs!
What creates more runs: being good at cashing in on opportunities with men on base or being good at giving your team as many opportunities with men on base?
Moroff had a great season in rookie ball in 2012 before a pair of middling years made him fall into obscurity. He came roaring back in 2015 with a 128 wRC+ in AA. That was a higher mark than any qualified major league middle infielder last year. And even though he’s only hitting .234 in Indianapolis, he is still producing runs at a 20 percent better rate than the league average (120 wRC+).
But the case can be made that putting runners on but not having anyone who can drive them home is worthless. Moroff’s humble batting clip jumps into the .300s when he has a runner in scoring position (25/81, good for a .309 average). He currently is at 41 RBI despite usually batting near the top of the order, which is 10 off the career best he set last season.
Old and New: Plays multiple positions!
While they may have their differences, if there is one thing both the nerds and elder statesmen can agree on is that being able to play multiple positions is a very marketable skill.
Moroff said the organization wanted him to be able to play second, short and third while still in AAA, and he has been getting more action at the hot corner than he had in years past, playing the majority of his games there in 2016 after only 11 appearances at that position from 2012-2015.
“They just want me to have a better opportunity in the future on a big league team,” Moroff said.
That flexibility is a plus for any player. With benches getting shorter, creating more opportunities to play at a variety of positions is a plus for any club, whether using that player in a utility role or waiting in AAA in case of an injury.
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There are plenty of things someone can look for in a ball player. Can he get on base? Does he have ice water in his veins? Can he be moved around the diamond? Can he create runs?
Moroff seems poised to be able to do all of those things, and maybe even a little more.