Kendrys Morales Has Gone from Castoff to Leading Man of Royals' Attack

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 19, 2015

Kansas City Royals' Kendrys Morales reacts after hitting a three-run home run during the eighth inning of Game 5 in baseball's American League Division Series against the Houston Astros, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Kendrys Morales hasn't left his mark on the American League Championship Series—yet.

He's 1-for-6 with a couple of RBI in two games, and more importantly, the Kansas City Royals have a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Toronto Blue Jays heading into Monday's Game 3 north of the border.

But it feels like Morales is due for a Significant Momentcapital "s," capital "m." And that feeling, by itself, is an unexpected twist.

Backing up a bit: When the Royals signed Morales to a two-year, $17 million contract last December, the deal was greeted with something less than enthusiasm by the majority of K.C. fans, as Pete Grathoff of the Kansas City Star highlighted via a series of cherry-picked-yet-representative tweets.

Morales has crushed three home runs in the postseason after a resurgent 2015 campaign.
Morales has crushed three home runs in the postseason after a resurgent 2015 campaign.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press/Associated Press

The issue was twofold. First, Morales—who turned 32 in June—was coming off a dreadful 2014 campaign, during which he posted a .218/.274/.338 slash line in 98 games with the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners.

Second, Morales was inked to replace Billy Butler, the beloved, lifetime Royals designated hitter who helped usher Kansas City to the World Series before bolting via free agency to the Oakland A's.

Those were strikes one and two against Morales, a seemingly declining hitter on the wrong side of 30 supplanting a revered franchise hero.

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Usually, this story would play out in a sad, familiar way, with Morales crashing and burning in semi-slow motion while the tepid cheers calcified into full-throated boos.

Instead, Morales raked, and the Royals rolled.

In 158 regular-season games, K.C.'s new DH slashed .290/.362/.485 with 41 doubles, 22 big flies and 106 RBI, all while playing half his contests in the AL's third-least homer-happy yard, according to ESPN's Park Factors statistic

After a dreadful 2014, Morales is a contender for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
After a dreadful 2014, Morales is a contender for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

"It's kind of what we hoped for when we signed him, to bring a power component to the lineup, an RBI guy," manager Ned Yost said in September, per MLB.com's Jeffrey Flanagan. "For him to bounce back after a couple of pretty tough years is phenomenal so far, with the doubles and RBIs. You feel good every time he walks up to the plate."

So far in the postseason, he's cracked three home runs and collected eight RBI. And the Royals, not coincidentally, are two victories shy of a second straight Fall Classic appearance. 

All of Morales' jacks came in the division series against the Houston Astros, including a three-run bomb off 'Stros ace Dallas Keuchel in the decisive Game 5.

That led MLB.com's Jane Lee, among others, to invoke the free-agent Morales-for-Butler swap with a healthy dusting of 20/20 hindsight:

So what's sparking this resurgence? During the regular season, Morales hit a higher percentage of balls in the air than he had in any season since 2009, per FanGraphs. And while he remains a free swinger, he posted the highest walk percentage of his career and his lowest strikeout percentage since 2010.

Really, last season's dip could be explained by poor conditioning, as CBS Sports' Dayn Perry pointed out, noting that in 2014, Morales didn't sign with the Twins until June, "which threw off his entire training schedule."

The Texas Rangers' Prince Fielder is likely the favorite for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors, with New York Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez also in the mix, polarizing history be damned. 

Morales, though, is the only one still standing in the postseason. That doesn't count when it comes to regular-season awards, but it does in every other sense.

He's far from the only weapon in a loaded Kansas City offense that has seen catcher Salvador Perez, outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer and others chip in this October. Add K.C.'s speed, airtight defense and strong bullpen, and you've got the makings of a two-time AL champion.

The Royals are an experienced bunch, after all, one that came within a Madison Bumgarner of a ring last autumn.

Now, they're two wins away from a return trip to baseball's ultimate stage. And while sample-size alerts obviously apply, Morales is 2-for-3 with a double in his career against young right-hander Marcus Stroman, the Jays' Game 3 starter.

In other words: As the ALCS heads to Canada, Kendrys Morales will be there—waiting to leave his mark.

All statistics current as of Oct. 18 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.