Digging For Diamonds: Max Moroff
Maxwell Anthony Moroff was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 16th round of the 2012 Amateur Draft from Trinity Prep School in Winter Park, Florida. Moroff initially caught my eye back in 2013 when he was a young shortstop who was hitting well in his first full season, but after he moved off the position, he lost a lot of luster in the eyes of prospect evaluators. Going back to his debut in 2012, his ISO-rates by season were: .090, .112, .096, .117, and .119 last year, never hitting more than 8 homers in a season. However, Moroff has steadily climbed up the ladder and even established himself as one of KATOH’s Top 100 Prospects for 2017 for his stellar work both at the plate and on the diamond, handling all three infield positions well and leading the International League in walks.
Unlike most utility players, Moroff is something of a three-true-outcomes infielder, with little speed on the base paths to boot. Last year, he slashed .230/.367/.349 with an extremely impressive 17.3% walk rate but a much more concerning 24.8% strikeout rate. He stole just 9 bases and hit 8 homers in over 500 trips to the plate. Entering his sixth pro season, the scouting reports all started to seem to sound the same: patient utility fielder with too many K’s and not enough power/speed.
Kiley McDaniel noted a few years ago that M&M has “feel for the game and a little pop, but he has trouble getting to it in games.” Fast forward to June 2017, and Moroff has maintained his plate discipline numbers (16.1 BB%, 25.0 K%) but has raised his ISO an insane 181 points to a cool .300, which currently leads the International League (yes, he’s higher than Rhys Hoskins!). He tied his career high of 8 homers in his first 24 games and already has 13 round-trippers as of this writing. Well Kiley, I think he’s getting to that power now.
I know what you must be asking yourself: is a 181-point jump in isolated power sustainable? Well, according to my friends at FanGraphs, Moroff’s 192 plate-attempts this year mean that we can begin to take his strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, fly ball rate, and yes, his isolated power seriously. Looking at the batted ball info, we see the corresponding shift in data that we look for when evaluating whether or not a pop-up guy is a breakout or a fakeout. Moroff’s season-by-season FB% starting in 2012 are as follows: 33.3%, 39.9%, 32.6%, 38.3%, 35.4% before hitting fly balls at a 45.1% clip this year, almost a 10% jump and a sign of a real change in approach.
Towards the end of April, Moroff’s manager Andy Barkett called a team meeting to give a specific message to his hitters. In Moroff’s words, “he was telling us, ‘Let’s be aggressive up there. Be ready right from the first pitch. If they throw something off-speed, just keep going with it and swing through it.’ It was something about that meeting that clicked with me.” Sure enough, Moroff led all of Minor League Baseball with a 1.366 OPS in May, hitting seven homers in an eleven game stretch.
So where is this power coming from, is the new approach really the only explanation? Moroff thinks so: “I’m not trying to put balls over the fence every time or anything. That’s not my goal. They happen to be going out, and I’ll take it. Being relaxed, ready and aggressive are my three main things right now, and that’s all I’m thinking about….It’s definitely a change for me. In years past, I’d say about 95 percent of the time I was going to take the first pitch, no matter what. That’s the way I worked. I’m still working on it, but I’ve got this mentality now to be ready for the fastball first pitch, and even if doesn’t come, I can see what I can do with off-speed.” Moroff was far too passive last year and did not get pitches to hit because he would always take the first pitch. In Moroff’s second two-homer game this season, both of his homers came on the first pitch of the at-bat (and from opposite sides of the plate). It seems being more aggressive has led to an increase in pitches to hit, and thus the increase in power production. What’s amazing is that his walk-rate has barely suffered; his walk-rate also leads the IL by half a percent.
Looking at video of Moroff from this year compared to last, it appears there have been other adjustments made as well. I am far from a scout, but Moroff looks to have a freer, more fluid swing this year, perhaps as a result of making sure his shoulder isn’t getting bunched up in his stance. The Pirates have seen enough from Moroff to give him an extended look in the Major Leagues this season, getting the call-up to replace Phil Gosselin as the team’s primary backup infielder last month. It will be interesting to see if the lack of everyday playing time effects Moroff’s new and improved approach at the plate, but I have a good feeling about Mad Max (you knew it was coming) and think he can establish himself as an everyday player eventually if he can maintain his newfound power and cut down on the strikeouts. His profile is eerily reminiscent to that of Brian Dozier’s, and I think he is an extremely underrated dynasty asset due to his patience, power, and position flexibility. With the trade rumors swirling around Josh Harrison and with David Freese’s injury/age concerns combined with the uncertain future of Jung-Ho Hang, I have to believe the Pirates view Moroff as a key to their future and perhaps an everyday player as soon as after this year’s trade deadline. If we could somehow convince Moroff to trade 5% of his walks for 5% of his strikeouts, we could be looking at Brian Dozier2.0 here, folks. I would invest with confidence but as always, feel free to ask me for advice in the comments section on who to drop or trade for him. We could all use a little more of Moroff…