One day later, he hit his 20th, a right-handed blast off Rays left-hander Matt Moore. Morales has now compiled back-to-back 20 home-run seasons. Over the two-year span, morales is hitting .278/.331/.460, good for a 123 OPS+ in the difficult coastal parks in Seattle and Anaheim.
Morales’s performance, unfortunately, hasn’t made much of an impact in MLB as a whole. He has toiled on a pair of non-playoff teams, and, as a DH, his performance grades out as merely slightly above average. Still, although Morales is far from a star, his performance over the past two years may be the most impressive in baseball.
Go back to May 29, 2010. The 27-year-old Morales hit a grand slam and nearly saw his career end. As Morales took the customary celebratory jump on home plate, the combination of his 225-pound (listed weight) frame and the force of the celebrating Angels teammates around him combined to snap his left leg.
The jolt from elation to pain for Morales — and his teammates — is as strong and quick as any across sports. Angels outfielder Reggie Willits scored on the home run and was in shock after the game:
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Willits said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever seen anything like that. I just hope he’s all right. It was just a crazy deal. I’m kind of at a loss for words.
“He looked like he was in pain. I’m hoping it just scared him. I know I sprained an ankle pretty bad in high school. You hear that pop and it scares you to death.”
That pop, it turned out, was Morales’s tibia. Morales missed the final 127 games of the 2010 season in recovery and opened the 2011 season on the 60-day disabled list. As Morales attempted to return, scar tissue built up in the leg and he was forced to undergo a second operation in May, in which a surgeon applied a bone graft to the leg. Morales missed the entire 2011 season following the surgery and was still dealing with the injury throughout spring training in 2012.
Baseball is not a sport that lends itself to long layoffs. The athletic actions the sport requires may not be as impressive, jaw dropping, or even as difficult as those in many other popular sports. But they are unique — whether it’s throwing, hitting, or fielding, baseball is not something that comes natural to the human body.
At least Morales, as a designated hitter, did not have to worry too much about fielding. But he is a switch hitter, and that may be the most amazing thing about his comeback: he had to rehabilitate not one but two swings after nearly two calendar years without taking professional at-bats. The Angels, smartly, took it slow with Morales — they largely limited him to hitting left-handed early on before letting him rack up some at-bats as a righty — but both swings have proved healthy. Morales homered five times in just 76 plate appearances as a right-hander last year to go with a .791 OPS as a lefty.
This year, he has been a touch better left-handed — as he often was before the injury — but both Moraleses have been dangerous. Morales owns an .816 OPS left-handed and a .759 OPS right-handed. Both lines come in above the league-average even for a hitter with the platoon advantage.
Two years ago, Morales appeared to be done, robbed of a promising career right as he was hitting his prime. The recovery process was too long, the injury too debilitating — the odds were stacked against him becoming the player he once was. He never has hit the heights of his 2009 season — 34 home runs, a .306/.355/.569 line and fifth place in MVP voting — but his 126 OPS+ this year effectively matches his pre-injury performance from 2010.
The timing couldn’t be better for Morales, who heads into free agency following the season. Even though the all-hit, no-glove player isn’t exactly en vogue these days, Morales should be destined for a multi-year contract this offseason. Considering what he’s had to get through to reach this point, it’s hard to think of anybody who deserves it more than him.