Kendrys Morales, Angels designated hitter, returns to action today, playing for the first time in almost two years after shattering his leg by stomping on home plate following a game-winning grand slam.
At the winter meetings in December, I asked Angels manager Mike Scioscia if he was concerned about Morales coming back from the long layoff. After all, though Morales is only 28, two years is a long time for any athlete to sit and still retain his reflexes. Morales wasn’t fast to begin with and had had only 1.5 good seasons before he busted his limb.
If I may be allowed the liberty of paraphrasing, Scioscia’s answer was essentially, “Well, there’s no reason to think he can’t,” which is the kind of thinking that Rogers and Hammerstein satirized as “cockeyed optimism.” So be it; we will hope Scioscia is correct.
Morales suffered one of the great fluke injuries in baseball history, but weird circumstances do not preclude those injuries from being permanently debilitating.
This is a long-ago example, but a good one: In the 1930s, the Tigers and Red Sox had a first baseman named Dale Alexander. He was a big, slow guy (nickname: “Moose”), but he was a very good hitter. In 1929, he hit .343/.397/.580 and in 1932 he won the AL batting title with .367/.454/.513 rates. Even in that inflationary offensive era, these were good seasons.
In 1933, Alexander suffered the injury that ended his major league career. From Alexander’s SABR biography:
Alexander hurt his leg sliding into home plate. Red Sox trainer Doc Woods used a new deep-heat method to try to reduce pain, decrease inflammation, and thereby speed healing: diathermy. Unfortunately, Woods left the machine on too long (apparently leaving the treatment room and not returning for quite some time) and burned Alexander's leg. "They'd just barbecued his leg," said son Steve. Don Alexander reported, "It really sort of atrophied. It really was smaller than the other. Just like it was a burn. Scarring tissue. It was discolored." He was so badly burned that there was worry he might lose the leg. Fortunately, amputation was never necessary.
Alexander could still hit after the injury—indeed, he went back to the minors and had another seven .300 seasons—but if you can’t move with a certain minimal amount of speed, they can’t use you in the major leagues.
This was true of other slow first sackers who suffered serious leg injuries, guys like Joe Hauser and Luke Easter. They continued to play in the sticks, putting up some amazing numbers, but if you can’t score from second on a double, you’re not going to get many chances in the bigs.
It goes without saying that sports medicine has made major advances since the days of Alexander, Hauser and Easter, but the human body has not. Our reflexes are in a constant state of decay (there is a cheery thought for a Thursday afternoon).
One hopes that Morales can find the power and consistency he showed in 2009, but it is far from a certainty. Keep in mind that even before the injury, Morales wasn’t necessarily a true switch-hitter, with career rates of .255/.285/.403 against left-handed pitching (.295/.354/.537 against right-handers) and he had been seen hitting more ground balls—not too many home runs are hit to shortstop.