There was a moment early in his Cubs tenure last year when Christopher Morel turned to look at Willson Contreras and got a reminder to just breathe. The rookie went on to knock in a walk-off sac fly and those cleansing breaths became part of his routine at the plate. He ended up cooling a bit down the stretch as opponents exploited the holes in his swing, so the Cubs started him in Iowa despite all his promise.
Morel quickly proved he was too much for Triple-A pitching and he proceeded to terrorize the bigs upon his delayed promotion, but things cooled again just as quickly. Following his ninth homer in 52 plate appearances, Morel more or less disappeared. He batted just .063 with no homers and a -19 wRC+ in his next 37 plate appearances, 24 of which came as either a designated or pinch hitter.
“When you’re playing defense, you concentrate on defense. You don’t think about what you did in your last at-bat,” Morel explained recently. “You’re concentrating on if they hit the ball here, I have to do this. If there’s someone on first, I have to do this. You’re thinking about defense. But when you’re DH’ing, the only thing you can do for your team is take at-bats.”
In order to get Morel out of that slump, Cubs coaches encouraged him to avoid obsessing over videos of his previous ABs on the tablet and to try to stay focused on the game. Acting as though he was in the field was a start, but that’s no substitute for actually being out there. That’s why the last 10 PAs from that more recent sample above came in the outfield.
Morel was 0-for-7 with just one run in that sample, though he did walk three times to only one strikeout. Still, something wasn’t quite right. With his former mentor in St. Louis and unable to help with breathing exercises, another veteran stepped in with a little advice. Dansby Swanson noted that Morel’s timing was off because he was loading too late and rushing his swing, hence the diminished results.
“You’re trying too much, [just] get the game to slow down and be ready, and you’re going to be good,” Morel told reporters over the weekend. “And I want to say, ‘Thank you, Swanson.’ Because in these games I got a home run and a hit. And I say every time I play good, I say, ‘Thank you, Swanson!’ And he laughed too.”
Over his last 36 plate appearances, Morel is batting .364 with a 1.207 OPS and 213 wRC+ that features four home runs, a double, and a triple. It’s also notable that four of his hits, including the triple and one homer, have come as the DH. Even if they believe his improved production in that spot is sustainable, however, the Cubs may be looking to get Morel into the everyday lineup another way.
Speaking to 670 The Score’s Mully & Haugh Monday morning, Jed Hoyer indicated the slugger could be getting more regular playing time at third base moving forward. His defense left a lot to be desired there last season, but the Cubs have gotten some of the worst offensive production in MLB from their third base group so far. They haven’t been great defensively either, so it’s not like Morel can really hurt in that regard.
Getting back to the main concept here, it’s really amazing how almost imperceptible differences can totally alter a player’s performance. Often, it could even be something the player can’t even diagnose with all the available technology at hand. I’m not saying tech isn’t integral, just that there are times when a little personal touch works best.
That sure seems to be the case for Morel as he rides yet another hot stretch in which he can almost single-handedly carry the team. And if he needs to slow down and catch his breath, he’s still got teammates there to pick up the load for him.