I was sitting in the stands in Altoona last weekend, talking with a long-time American League scout who had been watching Altoona for several days in a row. There’s a lot for scouts to like about the Altoona team. You’ve got two of the top prospects in the game in Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell. The pitching staff entered the year very under-rated, and is now getting a lot of attention for continuously putting up 5-6 inning starts that yield one run at the most. Then there’s some of the best power in the system from Willy Garcia and Stetson Allie.
One player who stood out to this scout in particular was Max Moroff. He’s not a flashy prospect like Glasnow or Bell, and he doesn’t have a plus tool like Garcia and Allie. But this scout in particular loved the way he’s good across the board at every aspect in his game, comparing him to David Eckstein, while calling him a guy who grows on you.
Moroff can play good defense at second base, he has speed, he gets on base, he makes contact, and he adds a bit of power. There’s a lot to like about his game, and this wasn’t the first time an opposing scout pointed him out. We’ve been getting very positive reports on Moroff since he came into the system in 2012, after being one of the Plan B options when Mark Appel didn’t sign. The Pirates ended up giving the 16th rounder a $300,000 bonus to sign that year.
Almost immediately after being told that Moroff is a guy to watch, he started an impressive run, picking up four hits on the day. It didn’t stop there. He is currently riding a seven game hitting streak, going 14-for-28 with four doubles, a triple, and a home run. Today he was named the Eastern League Player of the Week after doing most of that damage in the last seven days.
One thing that really stood out to me when watching Moroff last week was that he was aggressive early in the count. This was a big change from his approach the last two years. For those of you who have been following us during that time, you might remember reports from John Dreker and myself about how he wouldn’t take the bat off his shoulder during an entire at-bat. He would work the count full until he’d get a pitch to hit. This approach led to a high amount of walks, a somewhat high amount of strikeouts, and prevented him from tapping into his gap power.
“I’ve been trying to be more aggressive,” Moroff said about his approach this year. “Last year I was pretty timid on first pitch, and this year I’m getting more comfortable swinging at the first pitch.”
Altoona hitting coach Kevin Riggs has been working with Moroff on his rhythm and timing, and wants him to be ready to hit from the first pitch.
“Hitting in general, you need to be ready to hit early in the count,” Riggs said. “A lot of these pitchers can get ahead of you with the strikes early in the count at this level and higher levels above this one.”
Moroff not only did a good job of hitting early in the count, but he also consistently hit to the opposite field. He said that his focus is middle-away, looking to using the middle of the field or the opposite field. That worked out for most of the last week. Riggs said this approach helps take advantage of bad breaking pitches early in the count.
“Nobody hits the “put-away” breaking ball, so we want to hit the ball early in the count,” Riggs said. “If [pitchers] elevate it and leave it out over the plate, they should be in good position, if they’re trying to take the fastball the other way, to hit that.”
Riggs said that pitchers at this level are trying to set up the outside part of the plate early, so that they can finish off on the inside part of the plate. Staying out over the plate early will allow for some better hitting opportunities, as Moroff has seen so far. He’s been a good on-base guy in the past, but this approach is also helping him tap into his gap power a bit more often.
“My job is to get on base, to draw walks and steal, and let guys drive me in, but I’m trying to drive the ball to the gap more,” Moroff said. “Just be more aggressive.”
The numbers look good, with the second baseman putting up a .320/.424/.500 line heading into this week. The more encouraging signs lie beneath those numbers. Moroff has a 14.8% walk rate, which is the highest of his career outside of his brief time in the GCL in 2012. His 16.4% strikeout rate is the lowest of his career, outside of 2012. And his .180 ISO is the best of his career. His average might drop a bit when his .385 BABIP falls back to Earth, but Moroff has the potential to be a good offensive threat from second base.
The long-term view of Moroff is up in the air. The conservative view has him as a future middle infield bench option who can play strong defense at second base, while filling in part-time at shortstop if needed. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him being a starter. He’s never going to be a big home run hitter, but his gap power is real, his defense is solid at second, and his approach at the plate should continue to lead to a good amount of walks and a low strikeout rate, keeping both his average and on-base percentage high. He might not project as a star second baseman, but could definitely be a guy who can justify a starting role in the future, especially if his early results this year are the start of a breakout season.