Pirates' Moroff unleashing newfound power

Indy infielder gets aggressive, sits among Minors' homer leaders

Max Moroff hadn't reached double digits in homers during his four seasons in the Minors before 2017. (Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | May 19, 2017 12:00 PM

April was coming to a close, and it had not been a good month for Triple-A Indianapolis. The Indians were entering a three-game series in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with a 6-13 record, and the offense had been unproductive. Only one qualified hitter had an OPS above .800, and that was Chris Bostick. Pirates No. 22 prospect Max Moroff had some success early on, homering in his first three games of the season, but had a .206 average and knew changes were needed if he or his team was going to find success over the grind of a long season.

Before the Indians took on the RailRiders, manager Andy Barkett called a team meeting and had a direct message for his hitters.

"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,'" Moroff recalled. "It was something about that meeting that clicked with me."

No doubt.

In May alone, he's produced a Minors-best 1.366 OPS with seven homers in 11 games. That stretch comes around a four-game stint in the Majors from May 8-12, when fellow infielders David Freese and Adam Frazier were on the disabled list. His 12 homers on the season are tied with four others for the Minor League lead.

What's most remarkable, his previous career high for long balls was eight, which came last year in 133 games with Indianapolis. Moroff isn't a typical power hitter, but he's looked like one in 2017.

"I don't know, man," Moroff said, when asked why the homers have increased. "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."

Video: Indianapolis' Moroff belts two-run homer

When trying to dig into a statistical reason for the 24-year-old switch-hitter's power jump, there's little to find in his splits. Six of his homers have come at home, six on the road. Six have come from the left side of the plate, six from the right. He's a regression candidate, of course, with 36.4 percent of his fly balls going out of the yard -- compared to only 7.8 percent last season. (Even noted Major League sluggers Eric Thames, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are around 33 percent.)

But there's something to Moroff's aggression angle. Prior to this season, the 2012 16th-rounder had developed a reputation as a player who could post a high OBP. His 17.3 percent walk rate led Triple-A last season, while his 90 free passes were fourth-most in the Minors. That's great, but by trying to take walks, Moroff may have been overly passive, letting good pitches pass by in order to work the count. Because he got so deep into counts, he also struck out in 24.8 percent of his plate appearances in 2016.

As MLB.com began its capsule on Moroff this offseason, "Plate discipline and the ability to get on base have obviously become important to all Major League organizations, something that is preached to all prospects. Sometimes, a prospect can be too patient."

Flash back to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre series. In the second game of that three-game set on April 29, Moroff went 3-for-5 in an 8-5 win. There were no homers that day, but consider Moroff's three hits and the counts they came in: an 0-1 single in the first, an 0-1 single in the third, an 0-0 bunt for a base hit in the fifth. Barkett's message had come through loud and clear. 

"That game, I had two at-bats where I hit balls early that were either breaking balls or changeups," he said. "Last year, I really struggled against anything off-speed, but this seemed to be working. I'm still adjusting to it.

"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."

That was evident just this week, when Moroff went deep twice against Columbus on Wednesday for his second two-homer game of the season. Both long balls came on the first pitch of the at-bat and were from opposite sides of the plate. He now ranks third in the IL with a .985 OPS through 31 games, just ahead of Bostick in fifth at .963. The Indians also are now 20-18, tied atop the IL West Division.

Video: Moroff slugs second homer for Indians

There have been other adjustments, such as making sure his shoulder isn't getting scrunched up in his stance, allowing for freer swings. From a production standpoint, the Pirates felt comfortable bringing up Moroff to help the big club last week. (It helps he's played shortstop, third base and second this season.) He also was called up last season at the end of July but didn't see Major League action again in 2016 after going 0-for-2 with two strikeouts. Finally on May 9 of this year, he connected on a single off Dodgers left-handed reliever Luis Avilan for his first big-league hit. The flare to left, which tied the game at 2-2 in the seventh inning, might have come on a 2-2 pitch, but with that first one out of the way, Moroff knows what he has to do if he's going to earn a chance at getting Major League hit No. 2.

"It was a great experience to get up there again and get that first big league hit out of the way in L.A.," he said. "There was a little bit of pressure to get that first knock, but now that it's come, I feel more confident and can be myself again. I just need to keep working and keep being aggressive."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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