TORONTO — The Kansas City Royals’ visit to Rogers Centre this week offered players an opportunity to catch up with old teammate Kendrys Morales. It allowed Royals bench coach Dale Sveum the chance to reconnect with one of his best students.
Sveum was the hitting coach during Morales’s time in Kansas City and still marvels at the switch-hitter’s ability to recognize tendencies of opposing pitchers and identify when they’re tipping pitches.
“I’d put him right there with the Paul Molitors of the world,” says Sveum, who played alongside the Hall of Famer for five seasons in Milwaukee.
Morales, now the Toronto Blue Jays’ designated hitter, is viewed as somewhat of a clairvoyant in the Royals clubhouse for his unique prowess.
“He’s unbelievable at it,” declares Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.
“Always paying attention to the pitcher, looking for something different. He’s a really smart guy at that,” adds shortstop Alcides Escobar.
“He has this keen ability to find the smallest things. There were a lot of times that he would show all of us and we’d have no idea,” says catcher Drew Butera.
The topic of tipping pitches will penetrate the news cycle several times each season. Yu Darvish presented a high-profile case last year when Astros players said the right-hander was revealing his repertoire during a pair of ugly World Series performances. Yankees starter Luis Severino was allegedly doing the same in a start last week against the Red Sox.
Pitchers telegraph what they’re about to throw in an assortment of ways: It could be a variation to the windup, a tilt of the glove or even subtle changes of arm placement or mannerisms. Sometimes an advance scout will pick up on it, other times an eagle-eyed coach or veteran player.
When Morales was establishing himself with the Los Angeles Angels, teammate Torii Hunter was the resident expert.
“I paid a lot of attention to him and asked him a lot of questions: How do you do it? What do you look for?” said Morales, through translator Josue Peley. “Just looking at him allowed me to learn. He taught me so many things … Everything he was doing, I was trying to learn.”
Morales, who was activated from the 10-day disabled list before Friday’s game, sharpened his skill over the years and brought it to Kansas City in 2015. He resurrected his career that campaign, winning a Silver Slugger Award and helping the Royals to a World Series title.
Sveum recalls that the Cuban native was obsessed with examining video, estimating Morales would spend at least an hour before each series diligently completing homework on opposing pitchers. He compares Morales to former MLB slugger Manny Ramirez in that regard.
“A lot of times, he saw things that other people didn’t see and was able to use it to his advantage. But other players couldn’t see what he saw — he had a knack for it,” says Sveum of Morales. “I always joke with him, when I had him he’d waste 15 minutes of my day, and other players’ days, looking at video to try to pick up what only he sees.”
Moustakas remembers those sessions and the bewilderment he would feel viewing the computer screen. Before batting practice, Morales would huddle down in the video room and tell the third baseman, ‘Hey Mou, look, this is what we’ve got today.’ For the life of him, Moustakas couldn’t pick up what his teammate saw.
Eventually, Morales would walk over during the game and alert him when the premonition was playing out in real time.
“Almost every time he sees something he tells you, and a lot of the time, only he can see it because it’s so minimal,” recalls Moustakas. “It was pretty cool to watch it happen.”
Morales defected to the U.S. in 2004. He grew up simply relying on his talent, sans video. And that talent was indeed tremendous — he shattered several records during his rookie season in the Cuban League. But once he arrived in MLB, Morales knew he had to seek out advantages.
“You soon figure out that you’re playing against the best players in the world,” says Morales. “You need an edge. You need something in order to be successful. You just go out there and try to make a plan about every pitcher. See the tendencies and see what they do in order to help yourself, because you cannot just go out there with talent.”
The 34-year-old acknowledges that being a DH does offer ample study time in between at-bats. He’ll try to circulate his findings to Blue Jays teammates, just like he did in Kansas City, but says it’s not always taken as gospel.
“When I go in, and I am 100 per cent sure of something that I saw, I’m going to share with my teammates. Some of them don’t like it. Some of them want to go out there and do their thing, but those who are receptive and want to know, I let them know because I’m not just here to help me, but also here to help my teammates and my team to win.”
Morales hasn’t been able to transfer the success he enjoyed in Kansas City to his new team — his 94 OPS-plus in 158 games with Toronto shows he has been a below-average hitter. However, last season, his average exit velocity of 91.1 mph ranked 10th in baseball (minimum 150 batted ball events), ahead of preeminent sluggers J.D. Martinez, Manny Machado and Gary Sanchez. For context, Statcast destroyer Giancarlo Stanton ranked sixth with a 91.9 average exit velocity.
All this could at least suggest that Morales’s proficiency at deciphering pitchers has not betrayed him. Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis has heard the veteran discuss the subject on many occasions in the dugout.
“Some hitters that have been around this game a long time do a very, very good job of picking up on tendencies in pitchers’ rhythms and pick up things sometimes I know I don’t see myself,” Travis says. “Kendrys is a good one. You can always come into a clubhouse on the first day of a series and sure enough, he’s the only guy in the video room.
“He’s a big studier and it’s definitely a key.”