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Zone Breakdowns: Justin Morneau

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All information in this post has been gathered via mlb.com's hit charts and Gameday broadcasts.  My own discretion on borderline results and calls could result in a slight misrepresentation of the overall splits.

There's no way to get around it:  Justin Morneau is in a slump.  Since April 22, Morneau is 12-for-56 with four extra-base hits, five RBI, fourteen strikeouts and five walks.  That adds up to a .214/.279/.357 line, which has made him about as dangerous as Juan Pierre during that frame.  Sadly, I can't get a basball player out of a slump.  What I can do is look at the data, and see if I can sort through the information to find any trends.

Point of Attack

I've broken the strike zone and outlying areas into nine zones.  What follows is a chart by zone, showing the results of balls in play in that specific area.

        Up & Away       Up          Up & In

1B         0             0             2
2B         0             0             1
HR         1             0             1
GO         0             0             0
AO         2             0             1
BABIP   .333           N/A          .800

       Mid & Away       Mid        Mid & In

1B         1             7             3
2B         1             0             3
HR         0             1             1
GO         2             4             7
AO         6             6             7
BABIP   .200          .444          .333

       Low & Away       Low        Low & In

1B         2             3             1
2B         0             1             1
HR         1             1             0
GO         1            16             3
AO         5             8             0
BABIP   .333          .172          .400

As with most hitters, especially hitters with any semblance of power, pitchers don't like to go upstairs with Morneau too often.  Across the top he's 5-for-8, including two bombs and a double.  If you're the opposing pitcher and you're going up, you better miss or hope Justin misses.

The inside third of the plate is also strong for Morneau, thanks to his quick bat and aggressive approach to inside pitches.  He's also strong over the heart of the plate and low and away.  While the low and away strength may surprise you, just remember that this is also where many of his strikeouts have come, and strikeouts haven't been counted in this exercise.

In the midst of these stronger zones lies the black hole.  If you're like me you've watched him taking long swings at pitches away, but it's actually been the balls low in the zone that have eaten him up.  With a .172 BABIP in this area, opposing pitchers have induced sixteen groundouts; many of them pulled to the right side.

Results

This is a breakdown of results for balls in play, by the field they were hit to.

         Left       Center       Right

1B          4           7           8
2B          0           4           3
HR          1           2           3
GO          5           7          21
AO         16          13           6
Spray     26%         33%         41%
BABIP    .192        .394        .341

What first jumped out at me on this list are the number of groundouts pulled to the right side of the field.  When Justin was able to spread the ball to center and left field, a majority of his balls were hit in the air.  But when he's tried to jump on a pitch and missed, he's been on top of the ball and driving weak grounders to first and second base.  

Conclusions

Obviously, many of the balls low and over the plate are being turned into grounders pulled to the right side of the field.  If I had to take a guess, I'd say Morneau was getting in front of breaking balls and offspeed pitches.  Instead of getting good wood on the ball and driving it somewhere, he's reaching with his bat, slowing his swing to just make contact.  The results are easy outs.

While he struggles some making contact with pitches on the outer third of the plate (6-for-22; .273), the results of that contact aren't quite as moderate.  Some of those hits are ending up in center field, or even being pulled.  When Morneau is pushing the ball to the opposite field, he's accruing a majority of air outs.  Certainly, being able to push 26% of your balls in play to the opposite field isn't bad, but I'm sure Justin wishes they'd fall for hits more often.

Where Morneau thrives are areas where most pitchers are smart enough to now avoid:  anything inside (13-for-31; .419) and over the middle of the plate.  He controls his bat well, being able to hit for power without the prerequisite of pulling that little white sphere over the right-field wall.  Having gap power and being able to run well make him more than a one-trick pony, even if he doesn't regain his strike zone discipline...which I believe he will.

This slow offensive stretch for last summer's MVP has more to do with how he's making contact than whether he's making contact.  Over the last two weeks there have been a surprising number of groundouts, possibly due to pitchers throwing him offspeed pitches low more often.  He may be guessing a bit, forcing his swings, leading to more strikeouts and fewer free passes.  At times he's regressed to certain traits that made his 2005 campaign a bit disappointing, swinging at balls out of the zone and bouncing too many weakly-hit grounders to middle infielders.

But in the end, it's still "just" a slump.  It's not as though he's hitting to historically bad proportions.  All hitters great and poor go through rough patches, but we're lucky enough that Justin Morneau is much closer to the great side of the spectrum.  As soon as he regains some patience at the plate, and as soon as he's able to recognize certain pitches again, he'll be back on track.

The sooner, the better.