© 2023 BSN LIVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
On Aug. 2, after the Cubs’ second straight blowout of the Reds — who were then in first place in the National League Central — Christopher Morel made a bold prediction on the postgame show.
“We go to the playoffs. I say it today,” Morel told Marquee Sports Network’s Taylor McGregor.
Why was he essentially calling the team’s shot with two months left in the regular season?
“I believe. I trust the guys,” Morel said in a conversation with CHGO. “I believe in my team that we can make it.”
The Cubs have positioned themselves to make the playoffs in a full season for the first time since 2018. They entered Friday three games above .500, 2 1/2 games back of the Brewers in the Central and just a 1/2 game out of the Wild Card. According to Tankathon, the Cubs have one of the weakest strengths of schedule left. That has all led to the Cubs’ huge boost in postseason odds, with FanGraphs giving them a 50.9 percent chance to make the playoffs (as of Friday morning).
And if the Cubs are able to make that run, some of that will have to come from the production of the 24-year-old with the happy-go-lucky personality and the powerful bat.
Heading into Friday, Morel had a 133 wRC+, an .868 OPS, a .529 slugging percentage and 18 home runs (all second among Cubs with 50 plate appearances) on the season. His 33.1 percent strikeout rate showed there’s still holes in his game, but he’s certainly been one of the Cubs’ best hitters.
“He’s a really impressive player. He’s got real thunder in the bat,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “When he makes contact, good things happen.”
Of course, he’s had highs and lows. Perhaps Morel’s first and last at-bats of the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Mets on Wednesday serve as a single-game example of those highs and lows of a young, electric hitter.
On the first pitch of the game from New York’s David Peterson, Morel drilled the ball over the left-field wall. It was Morel’s first home run since that Aug. 2 win over Cincinnati, and it would’ve been one of the biggest highlights of the game had the Cubs been able to hang on. Yet, the moment that will likely be remembered — especially if dropping the series comes back to haunt them — is Morel looking at a middle-middle fastball with one out in the ninth and the go-ahead run on second base.
Highs and lows will come for any young hitter. The goal is to hit those highs as consistently as possible and limit both the length and depth of the lows, and for someone with the raw tools Morel brought along, maturing at the plate is the key to doing that.
Morel’s maturity, Cubs coaches say, has been on display.
“You’re starting to see the maturity of what good hitters start to do, right?” Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “The pitchers are always going to adjust to them, and then it’s like, how fast can we adjust to what they’re doing? We’re seeing Mo start to make those adjustments quicker and quicker, and even at-bat to at-bat now.”
For one example of Morel’s maturity as a hitter, we need to go back to that Aug. 2 game at Wrigley Field. With the Cubs trailing by two with one out and runners on first and second in the fifth inning, Morel found himself in an 0-2 hole. For that second strike, Morel swung wildly at a slider well off the plate down and away.
Earlier in the season, perhaps that at-bat results in a strikeout. But in this instance, he told himself, “Stay under control. Take your time. Try to slow the game [down] again,” worked an eight-pitch at-bat — which included sitting on four-seam fastball just outside for ball two — and sent a four-seamer away off the wall in right-center.
“We talk a ton in the dugout in between pitchers about knowing what’s coming and having a pretty good idea of, ‘This guy is going to attack you this way,'” Kelly said. “Those guys start to learn that, ‘Hey, I’m going to get a slider right here. Just because I get the slider doesn’t mean I swing.’
“He’s starting to learn that there’s a certain type of slider. It needs to start in his spot. I think once he swung at that first one, he realized, ‘Oh man, that wasn’t where I wanted it,’ and he was able to back it back down a little bit and reset his sights to where he knew that he could get to one.”
Again, part of that maturity is limiting the lows as best as you can. As we saw in Morel’s 2022 season, that isn’t easy.
He started his career strong with a 22-game on-base streak, and over his first 211 plate appearances (47 games), he posted a 131 wRC+. However, over his last 214 PAs (66 games), his wRC+ was just 81, and his wRC+ in August alone was down to 56. And as the graph below shows, many of his plate discipline stats and his walk and strikeout rates trended in the wrong direction.
Morel came into 2023 determined to not let the lows last that long again.
“I’m working hard for this,” Morel said. “I know that last year, we were a little bit struggling. I understand that, so I kept working hard in the offseason, I was working hard in spring training, so my second half [from 2022 won’t] happen again. Try to be consistent.”
Morel spent the first month of this season at Triple-A Iowa. There, he was able to get everyday at-bats and get into a rhythm early. The Cubs did challenge him to take strides in different aspects of his game (defense, base running, etc.), but they really wanted to see improvements in plate discipline.
Nobody will know how Morel would’ve performed if he’d been on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster, but his coaches still believe starting his season with Iowa was beneficial.
“We knew he could hit. We knew that he was going to slug and put up power numbers, but there’s other parts of this game that he needed to kind of speed up on,” Kelly said. “That Triple-A environment was a perfect place for him to go and get some of those experiences and then come here, and he jumped right in and has helped us from Day 1.”
While he’s had his struggles at times this year, they haven’t lasted long.
Morel has yet to go three straight starts without reaching base at least once. He has just two hits in 20 at-bats over his last seven games, but he’s still taken six walks. Of his three full months in 2023, July’s 120 wRC+ is his lowest mark.
And unlike 2022, his 2023 numbers have trended positively overall.
“Every at-bat that he gets is just another learning experience, right?” Kelly said. “We talk about, these guys have these mental books of the pitchers and the shapes and what they’re facing and how guys are getting them out. He’s starting to build up that book, and you’re starting to see it now that he’s facing guys multiple times and he’s putting together really good at-bats.”
Even as his coaches praise him, he isn’t satisfied.
“It feels good, but I can be better,” Morel said. “Every time they tell me something about, ‘Hey, you’re doing good,’ I say, ‘I can be better.'”
It’ll be a constant thing with Morel. Pitchers will keep making adjustments, and he’ll have to adjust back. But that’s part of the fun of watching him play. He doesn’t get down on himself in a bad stretch. He just gets back to work and tries to figure out a way to get going again.
Morel will most likely take more lumps in his major league career. But his maturity continues to impress everyone in the organization.
“He loves the moment,” Ross said. “He wants to come through in the moment. You see every at-bat and you watch his body language. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s just so fun to watch him take the deep breath, to try to use the big part of the field, learning what the pitcher is trying to do to him, hone in on his zone — the little things that keep coming with the maturity and his progression as a major league player.
“It’s coming fast. He’s really good.”
Get Chicago's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!
Become a smarter Chicago sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from CHGO’s writers and podcasters!
Just drop your email below!