Welcome to 2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Christopher Morel Returns With a Bang.
When Morel was sent down to the minor leagues to begin the season, it was greeted with skepticism. Morel, a player who can play everywhere, finished 2022 in a strong way. In just 113 games, he amassed 16 homers and 10 steals. His .235 average was disappointing, but the .433 slugging percentage was strong. As a 23-year-old future cornerstone of the franchise, most thought he should have started 2023 with the big club.
Better late than never. After torching the minors over 29 games, Morel came back up last week and has made an immediate impact. His line in more than a month of Triple-A was .330/.425/.730 with 11 bombs and four steals. Whether or not teammate Nico Hoerner got hurt was irrelevant. Morel deserved a full-time role with the Chicago Cubs.
Now that he is killing pitching in the big leagues again, what can we expect for the rest of 2023?
2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Christopher Morel Returns With a Bang
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Christopher Morel has been a Top-10 Hitter Since His Return From AAA
Even before Morel hit a three-run homer against the Houston Astros, he was just about the hottest hitter in baseball. What's even more amazing is he did it while the Cubs slotted him eighth, ninth, and sixth in the order before coming to their senses. He now has hit leadoff in three of his last four games and fantasy managers are getting more plate appearances.
Since his return, Morel is slashing a crazy .375/.375/.857 with four homers, nine RBI, and a steal. Clearly, you can see his walk rate is 0%, but that's picking nits. In Triple-A, his walk rate was 12.7% and last year in MLB it was almost nine percent. That plate patience will come, but right now, the power is locked in. Four of his eight hits have gone for extra bases so far. He pummeled a ball against Framber Valdez last night to tie that ballgame. And Valdez is a pitcher not normally prone to giving up blasts like that.
But underneath the hood, there are many positive signs as well. While it is a small sample, Morel's ground ball rate has dropped from the horrific 50% last season to just 40% so far in 2023. It's a product of some very intentional changes made in the minors.
Morel Made All the Right Adjustments in the Minors
If we were to point to a couple of glaring flaws from last season, it would be Morel's contact rate and groundball rate. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances last season, Morel's 63.4% contact rate was third-worst in the league. He was right there with guys like Joey Gallo and Luke Voit. Yikes. And even when he did make contact, it was not the kind you want, with a groundball rate of 50%. That rate was among the 25 worst in the league for batters with 400 plate appearances. It was a lethal combination that robbed a lot of power and speed potential from a really talented player.
Clearly, the directive down in AAA was to work on contact rate. So far, it is paying dividends. Courtesy of Fangraphs, this rolling average shows how Morel bottomed out in contact rate last season, but is making the climb back up this year. (The shaded grey area represents his numbers from 2023, which are still pulling a few games from 2022).
But it's not just been pure contact for contact's sake. He has been working on his launch angle and his upward trajectory swing. His average launch angle last season was nine degrees, but so far in 2023 it is up to 10.6%. That change has allowed his groundball rates and flyball rates to basically flip from 2022.
You can see that at his worst in 2022, Morel's groundball rate was peaking at around 70%. He couldn't get the ball in the air, and it killed any potential for power. Towards the end of the season, that trend began to flip and the flyballs started moving from below 30% to above 40% to now a solid 50% to start the 2023 season.
Monday's game is a perfect microcosm for all of the gains that Morel has made, but also how far he still has to go. After looking a little foolish with two strikeouts in his first two plate appearances, he adjusted against Valdez. On 0-2 count when Morel would normally be playing defense and just not get fooled, he remained aggressive. Valdez left a pitch up in the zone and Morel absolutely tattooed it for 401 feet to left-center field.
When Morel is at his best, he remains selective about his swings, but he is a hitter that can demolish any pitch that is a mistake. Will pitchers eventually adjust and start throwing him more trash outside? Perhaps, but Morel's swinging strike rate is down to 14.7% after being above 18% last season. That's just another gain that is leading to his smashing fantasy success.
What to Expect From Christopher Morel the Rest of 2023?
Even though he was only down for 29 games, that surprise demotion seems to have delivered the message to Morel. He focused on making contact, and making that contact count. With a new higher launch angle approach in his arsenal, once Morel starts being slightly more selective, he will likely be unstoppable.
The main question, of course, is what happens when Nico Hoerner comes back from injury? Hoerner played every day at second base before his injury this season. Morel played his first three games at second base when he was called up. But his last three have been at DH, center field, and left field. The Cubs are surely preparing him to play some kind of super-duper utility role where he is in the lineup every day. He can play second, third, DH, or any outfield spot.
If the bat keeps doing what it's been doing, there is no way the Cubs, with playoff aspirations, can bench him. The only question is where does he slot in the batting order and can he keep the gains he made since last year? My fantasy teams are counting on "yes" being the answer to that last question. I'm investing in him anywhere I can.
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