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On the Cubs’ previous road trip, when they made the trip to Anaheim, Christopher Morel got a breather. He didn’t play in any of the three games, in which the Cubs were swept by the Angels. But the idea was that this could give him a bit of a break from the high highs and low lows he’d already experienced in his first 22 games of the year.
Like the way he started his career in 2022, Morel went on an unbelievable run to begin his 2023.
After being recalled on May 8 following a 29-game stint in Triple-A Iowa to begin the year, Morel’s power came in bunches. Through his first 12 games, he’d homered nine times. Not only is he the first Cubs batter to ever hit nine home runs in his first 12 games of a season, but he joined a very select group of players in franchise history to homer nine times in any 12-game span.
It was about as good a start as he possible could’ve had. In those 12 games, he led the majors in home runs, slugging (.980) and isolated power (.612) while ranking near the top in wOBA (.565, second), wRC+ (264, third), OPS (1.383, third) and plenty of other offensive stats. The beginning to his season was so impressive, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer was even asked if he regretted not having Morel up on the Cubs to start the year — which he didn’t necessarily agree with.
But again, like his 2022 season, Morel struggled after his torrid start.
Over his next 10 games, everything that was going right went way wrong. He had both an average and slugging percentage of just .069. He had an on-base percentage of .182. His isolated power was a .000, and his wRC+ was -21. And in those 33 plate appearances, he didn’t hit a single home run (or even an extra-base hit).
It was an obviously rough stretch for Morel. A small sample, yes, but not much smaller than his hot start. So, during the trip to Angel Stadium, Morel was kept out of the lineup in all three games.
“I think sometimes, perspective from the side and being able to take a minute to work on things without pressure to perform in the moments is probably healthy for everybody that’s going through a little bit of some struggles,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “That’s a hard balance, right? You try to play the matchups and see who is swinging the bat well and balance that with what you feel like is going to help the team win.”
One of the things that appeared to be hurting him was his growing role as the designated hitter. Whereas he was only the DH three times in his first 12 games, he lined up there for six of the next 10 (with another being just a pinch-hit appearance). It would seem that having to focus only on hitting would benefit a struggling player, but that apparently wasn’t the case with Morel.
“I feel better when I’m playing outfield or a position than doing DH,” he told reporters during the Cubs’ series in San Diego, including MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “If I [do poorly] one at-bat, I think too much. … They see it, and I see it, too. In the game, I can concentrate at different points and not think too much about hitting.”
Cubs first-base coach Mike Napoli had some experience serving as a DH during his 12-year career. He was the DH in 144 of the 1,392 games he played. Morel needed some advice on playing in a hitter-only role, and Napoli gave him some insight on how to make that work for him.
“I try not to overthink,” Morel said through team interpreter Fredy Quevedo Jr. “Napoli told me that after a bad at-bat not to go back and try to look too much into it, because then I would begin to overthink. It’s more so just kind of focusing on each at-bat.”
Whether those conversations lead to long-term production as a DH remains to be seen. Upon returning to the lineup in San Francisco, he’s been in the field for six of nine games. Regardless, that break in Anaheim may have been exactly what Morel needed.
It didn’t happen right away. He went 0-for-3 in that first game against the Giants (though he did take a walk and didn’t strikeout). But over the last eight games, he’s rediscovered his power stroke.
Morel has hit four home runs in that time, including this one to the opposite field at Oracle Park on June 10 and this one that gave the Cubs their last lead of the game on Sunday. He’s got a 1.350 OPS. His wRC+ is a 252, and his wOBA is a .547. He’s got a 50 percent hard-hit rate and a 15.4 percent barrel rate. And what might satisfy the Cubs coaching staff most? He’s only striking out at a 12.9 percent clip in that time.
“He’s punishing baseballs right now,” Ross said. “It’s pretty fun when he’s doing that.”
Even with the extended slump, Morel’s numbers on the season are as impressive as any around the majors leagues.
Among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, Morel ranks first in slugging (.700), and isolated power (.409) and third in wRC+ (174), wOBA (.430) and OPS (1.042). The strikeout rate is now under 30 percent (29.2), which given the power that comes when he does make contact with the ball, the Cubs can live with.
With his profile, Morel will likely be an up-and-down player. When he’s on, the power is notable. When he’s off, the cold spells are pronounced. That’s just what he is as a hitter at the moment.
But considering the lack of consistent power throughout the lineup, the Cubs need someone like Morel who can change the game with one swing. For the coaching staff, it’s about figuring out how to help him extend the highs and minimize the lows.
“It’s that young, energetic, fast-twitch, athletic player,” Ross said. “There’s real thunder in there, and as he continues to mature and his baseball IQ continues to grow and the passion and energy at which he plays with, he’s going to be a really good, dynamic player.”
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