Posted: Wednesday August 24, 2011 12:00PM ; Updated: Wednesday August 24, 2011 12:58PM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

Nationals' beastly slugger Morse heads All-Underrated team

Story Highlights

Michael Morse leads Washington in average, home runs, doubles and OPS

Ryan Roberts has taken advantage of his opportunity with the Diamondbacks

ERA leader Johnny Cueto of the Reds leads the underrated starting pitchers

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Michael Morse
After finally securing a regular spot in the lineup, Michael Morse has set career highs in every offensive category.
US Presswire

The 2011 season's least heralded breakout star precedes each at bat by walking onto the dirt that surrounds home plate and stopping just before entering the righthanded batter's box. He purses his lips, lifts his left leg up and back like a starting pitcher and rotates his torso and shoulders forward as if mimicking the first half of his swing in slow-motion.

The Nationals' Michael Morse explains that this seemingly unnatural contortion serves a dual purpose as an at-bat ritual. The overexaggerated stretch is a remnant of exercises he learned to alleviate tightness he experienced earlier this season in his hips, and the act of winding up into a spring of potential energy helps him visualize his murderous swing.

"Like when a cobra's about to strike, he coils up before he strikes," Morse said Tuesday.

Morse, the MVP of SI.com's All-Underrated Team, has become a 6'5", 230-pound predator in a baseball uniform. He leads Washington in batting average (.317, home runs (21), doubles (30), slugging percentage (.550) and OPS (.923) and has been baseball's most productive first baseman since replacing Adam LaRoche, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in May, in the lineup. At the game's most star-studded position, Morse leads all his counterparts -- from Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira in the American League to Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto in the National League -- with a 1.016 OPS while playing first.

Morse, 29, has slugged the club's six longest home runs this season, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, including two this month of special note. His 466-foot bomb to Wrigley's deep centerfield ranks as one of the top-10 longest home runs in the majors this year, and a 455-foot jack at Nationals Park -- to the upper-deck of the opposite-field -- demonstrated his brute force to all fields.

The gift that Washington shortstop Ian Desmond handed Morse earlier this season -- a t-shirt with "Beast Mode" screen-printed across the chest -- thus seems fitting in hindsight. Morse began wearing it everyday before games. "That was me," he said, "I turned into the Beast."

Indeed, Morse's baseball story could be a Disney tale for his having overcome a troubled start, though the plotline is reversed: morphing into the Beast is his happily ever after.

But where did all of this come from? Morse, who split his early childhood between his mother's house in South Florida and his grandparents' house in Jamaica, starred as a big-framed high school shortstop shortly after Alex Rodriguez, who hailed from nearby, had made the hulking shortstop en vogue. The White Sox drafted Morse in the third round in 2000 then traded him four years later to the Mariners as part of the package for Freddy Garcia.

Morse reached the majors at shortstop in 2005 and batted .395 in his first 24 games in Seattle but finished the year at a .221 clip over the next 48 games. Thanks to a series of injuries (most prominently a torn meniscus in 2006 and a torn shoulder labrum in 2008), position changes (to the corner outfield and first base) and a few more missed opportunities, Morse didn't have 50 major-league at bats in a season again until he was traded to the Nationals for outfielder Ryan Langherhans in 2009.

Morse finished the 2010 season as Washington's rightfielder and did so with a flourish. He ended up with 15 homers, a .289 average, a .352 on-base percentage and a .519 slugging percentage. For the first time he seemed poised to make the Opening Day roster as an everyday player.

And then, for $126 million, the Nationals signed Jayson Werth to play rightfield.

"I was like, 'What do I have to do?'" Morse recalled. "I was mind-boggled."

He opened the year in a leftfield platoon with the lefty-swinging Laynce Nix, a part-time gig Morse had effectively lost by the first two weeks of May when he was primarily relegated to pinch-hitting. Then the injury to LaRoche created an opportunity for playing time.

Morse thanked hitting coach Rick Eckstein for his help but noted that the biggest change has simply been the assurance of being in the lineup everyday, which allows players more opportunities to get on hot streaks and break out of slumps.

"I always knew I could hit," he said. "I haven't changed anything. I'm the same person I was and always have been. I'm getting the opportunity to play every day. No matter what you do today, you know you're going to be in there tomorrow. If you don't get them today, you know you're going to get them tomorrow. That's the kind of mentality you can have, which takes a lot of pressure off of you and just brings out the talent."

So it should come as no surprise that Morse's season turned around as soon as he became entrenched in the Nationals' everyday lineup. Manager Davey Johnson has suggested that Morse might return to leftfield next year when LaRoche is healthy but has assured Morse that he'll be in the lineup somehow, some way.

Should he keep up this pace for the next few years, Morse will be a marketer's dream, a man whose personality matches his prodigious power. With little urging he sang A-Ha's "Take on Me" in an appearance on MLB Network's "Intentional Talk" show. He gives himself a celebratory slap on the helmet during home-run trots. And he comes replete with his own slogans, starting with "Beast Mode" but now moving into a new phase of the season -- and thus a new t-shirt -- that he has taken to calling "Hammer Time" because, as the season winds down over the next six weeks, "now it's time to hammer it down."

As the baseball calendar moves into the stretch run, SI.com unveils its All-Underrated Team. The only strict requirements are that a player couldn't have made this year's All-Star team or appeared on a top prospect list the past two years, but there must also be an (inherently subjective) underappreciation of the player's talents.

Catcher: Chris Iannetta, Rockies

Players with a .238 average typically get little attention, but Iannetta has hit with power (16 doubles and 12 homers) in his 298 at bats and has the best walk rate of all major league catchers, drawing a free pass for every 5.763 plate appearances. His .375 on-base percentage is second among catchers behind only Detroit's Alex Avila, and Iannetta's secondary average -- a Bill James-created metric to compare a player's production beyond batting average in a ratio deriving from extra-base hits, walks and steals over at bats -- ranks 10th among all hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, regardless of position.

First base: Michael Morse, Nationals

(See above.)

 
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