Sam Mellinger

Kendrys Morales’ Friday homer shows KC's significant, crucial upgrade at DH

The Royals' Kendrys Morales celebrated after hitting a home run against the A's during Friday’s baseball gamein Oakland, Calif.
The Royals' Kendrys Morales celebrated after hitting a home run against the A's during Friday’s baseball gamein Oakland, Calif. AP

They say that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing in sports, and hitting a home run is even harder, so the following sentence is not intended to diminish the accomplishment. It's simply that, well, Kendrys Morales' home run looked so dang easy.

He got a change-up, belt-high and over too much of the plate. These are the pitches that big league hitters see in their dreams. Morales tapped his toe once, strode into the pitch, and swung hard.

His bat did not hit the ball square, not in that way you see on the highlight shows, and in that split moment after contact he worried he made an out. But Morales' hands are like cinderblocks. Quick-twitch cinderblocks. The ball rose off his bat, curving down the left field line and over the fence.

It was the shortest home run of the season for Morales, and running around the bases, he had all the intensity of a man out for his morning jog. Like we say, it just looked easy.

“You have to be really strong,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.

Morales' homer was the first run in what turned out to be a 5-2 Royals win over the A's here on Friday night. The Royals are playing well again. They've won eight of 11. After scoring three or fewer runs in all but four of 18 games, they've now scored five or more in six of their last 11.

Scoring runs comes so much easier when guys can make it happen with one swing, particularly one swing that's not perfectly executed, and, well, that's really the point.

Because it's been a while since the Royals had a designated hitter who could do this.

Been since 2013, maybe before, back when Billy Butler was hitting the way you would expect from someone in the middle of an American League batting order.

More than half of baseball's brutal grind remains, plenty of time for current trends to change, but the context of the moment is amplifying the Royals' significant and crucial upgrade at DH.

That home run was Morales' ninth of the season, in 257 at bats. Butler had nine all of last year, in 549 at bats.

Morales is hitting .288, with a .348 on-base and .467 slugging percentage. Butler last matched those numbers in 2012. On Friday, he went 0-for-4, striking out to end the game. He is now hitting .245, with a .306 on-base and .342 slugging percentage. Each of those numbers need to rise substantially to avoid career worsts.

This is a hard game to figure, and the Royals got a bit lucky here. They misread the market on Butler, declining a $12 million option for 2015 before watching him sign for three years and $30 million with the A's.

It was a business decision on both sides, albeit one soaked with sentiment. Butler had been with the Royals longer than any other player, signed a long-term extension to stay, and was the picture of reliability for a lot of otherwise unreliable teams. In 2009, he had 72 extra-base hits for a team that lost 97 times.

Butler had been cursed and occasionally booed in Kansas City, but also the center of a wild lovefest when the 2012 All-Star Game was played at Kauffman Stadium. One of the enduring images of the Royals' playoff run last fall is Butler dancing at second after a stolen base. He took a curtain call in game two of the World Series.

But there were too many other factors going against Butler and the Royals enjoying a long-term marriage. By the end, both sides knew they had to move on.

At first, the Royals wanted to rid themselves of being locked into a primary DH. Alex Gordon is 31 now. Sal Perez is in chronic need of a day off. Lorenzo Cain's legs could use an occasional rest.

But the market shifted a different way, and the Royals signed Morales to a two-year deal worth $17 million. Morales was coming off a miserable season stunted before it began by his own misread of the market. It wasn't what either side expected, but it was a match.

Many in the industry figured the Royals would be lucky if Morales matched Butler's production, but so far it's a blowout. Morales is 3 years older, but lost 12 pounds in the offseason. Scouts see the bat speed and timing that made him one of the American League's better hitters from 2009 to 2013.

He looked in slow motion at times last year. He's in full speed again now, smiling in the clubhouse, a magnet for activity and conversation before games.

“He feels like he's in the best shape of his life,” says Christian Colon, who translated for Morales Friday night. “Of his life, yeah.”

So far, the results are just shy of stunning. His strikeouts and ground-ball rates are down. He's making hard contact much more often.

Particularly with the Royals playing the A's this weekend, the contrast to Butler is impossible not to see. Butler is hitting more ground balls, and more infield popups than ever before. His walks are down. Pitchers are challenging him more, and he's not hitting fastballs well, which is particularly troublesome because Butler has always crushed fastballs.

Butler will likely improve. His track record remains strong, and as long as he's healthy, his numbers will rise.

But this is more about Morales than it is Butler. If you can look past the history and past the sentiments, Morales is a better fit. Some of that is in the clubhouse, where he is a vocal, positive and veteran presence for the Latin American players.

Most of it is in the lineup, where he is a fully willing and happy full-time DH. Butler was always more comfortable when he played first base, and let his preference be known. Morales' last season playing more games in the field than at DH was 2010.

At the beginning of the year, a Royals executive was going through the team's strengths and weaknesses. Replacing James Shields would be impossible, and he had concerns about the rotation. But he made a specific point about seeing the Royals' opening day lineup, and being struck by the depth.

A year ago, every game the Royals navigated their way around slow innings. This season, the opening day lineup had Alex Rios hitting seventh and Sal Perez hitting eighth.

“Morales just makes the rest of the lineup that much better,” the executive was saying.

Butler played 1,179 games for the Royals, including the playoffs. He will likely be inducted to the team's Hall of Fame someday, and rightfully so. He's played only 71 games for the A's, and it still looks strange to see him in green. A lot of Royals fans will always root for him.

But even so, their team is better off with the new guy.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger.

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