Is Christopher Morel’s hot Cubs start for real? ‘It’s really impressive’

NEW YORK — While working with a group of largely veteran big leaguers at the South Bend alternate site in 2020, Christopher Morel opened some eyes with his talents. However, when he arrived to spring training in 2021, something was off. With minor-league camp delayed due to ongoing COVID-19 issues, Justin Stone, the Cubs director of hitting, hadn’t yet arrived in Mesa but saw something with Morel that stood out.

“I was just looking at the data from Chicago,” Stone said. “His swing had previously always been considerably long. The background on that is just his body type. There are different movement categories of players, and Chris is a hyper-mobile player. The process of tightening up his swing is going to take a few years longer than someone with a tighter body type. We know that going in. But when he came to spring training and he’s in big-league camp, his swing was at the longest position that I’d ever seen.”

Stone talked to Matt Dorey, then the team’s VP of player development, and suggested that Morel would get eaten alive by major-league pitching with such a long swing. There was hope that just facing some tough pitchers that spring would help move the process along, but there was work to do.

Morel got after it with Rachel Folden, a hitting coach in the minor leagues, and Dustin Kelly, the team’s minor-league hitting coordinator, going through data and putting in work in their hitting lab to shorten up his swing. There was progress, but like Stone said, it didn’t happen all at once. Morel hit .220 in Double A last summer, an indication of the up-and-down nature of his season. But his power numbers were way up (the .212 ISO he delivered was a career-high at that point) and he was beginning to take his walks at a much higher clip. 

“Chris has a really high aptitude, which speeds up the player development process, and an incredible work ethic,” Stone said. “We went to work at it and because we have so much data we can see by trial and error — this is working for you, this isn’t. The numbers at Double A reflected that because it was an ebb and flow of making strides but taking two steps forward and one step back pretty consistently.”

This season, the progress was clear. Morel looked strong in Double A, slashing .306/.380/.565, and the strikeouts were dropping while the walks stayed at a respectable level. Morel said he’d built a rapport with Will Remillard at the alternate site in 2020. (Remillard was his hitting coach in 2021 at Tennessee and then shifted to hitting initiatives coach prior to this season.) The work with Kelly continued and Rick Strickland, the new Double-A hitting coach, helped Morel find another level as well. On May 17, Morel ended up being a surprise call-up to the major-league club.

“The call was going to be at Triple A the next day,” Stone said. “But because of some roster situations, it was to the big leagues. And Dustin said, ‘He’s ready to go. His swing has never been in a better place. He knows his routine.’”

To get to that point, Stone and his staff put Morel through a process every player in the system has to go through. They ran him through physical tests, learning his movement profile so they could best understand how long it would take to get his mechanics where they needed to be. Shortening a player’s swing can never be a cookie-cutter approach; players with different bodies have to train in different ways. That’s a primary reason Stone and his hitting coaches and coordinators were brought into the organization. 

“The easiest way to say this is that we’re helping the players match efficient moves in the batter’s box through their movement profile,” Stone said after he was hired by the organization more than two years ago. “That starts with a movement assessment of the players. I categorize players across the spectrum of five mobility levels. From lowest to highest, that’s stiff, tight, neutral — it’s a bell curve — loose and hyper-mobile. So there is no blanket, ‘This is one way to hit.’ You have to adapt to every player’s movement type.”

Beyond the mechanics of it, Morel credits his mental approach. He takes to coaching, but he doesn’t seem to overthink his mental game. 

“It’s something that I’ve learned as I’ve gone through my career,” Morel said. “I’ve read books that have taught me to stay in the moment, take deep breaths and be disciplined and control my emotions. That’s something that’s helped me a lot.”

A viral moment of Willson Contreras encouraging Morel to take a deep breath before he hit a game-winning sacrifice fly is just one example of this. Morel can often be seen stepping out of the box and taking a deep breath to reset himself before getting back in to take a strong but measured cut. 

Morel has never been on top-100 prospect lists or even considered one of the Cubs’ best prospects. His defensive versatility has intrigued and the raw athleticism tantalized, but it’s been a slow burn. It’s too early to say that Morel has outperformed his previous prospect status and has turned himself into a legitimate, everyday big-league player, but if he keeps this up, the more it puts thoughts in team president Jed Hoyer’s mind that he has something unexpected here.

“It does happen,” Hoyer said. “He’s a great athlete, his tools play in the big leagues, for sure. You see his arm, that’s the part we always knew could play. The bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline — I don’t know if it’s just a different level of focus he has up in the big leagues, but certainly, that stuff has been unbelievably impressive. You look around the big leagues and there are probably countless examples of guys that are never on top-100 lists that end up being great players.”

Hoyer didn’t want to say that Morel would never go back to the minors. Extended struggles could mean a reset for anyone. It happened to Kyle Schwarber in 2017 and Ian Happ in 2019. But simply to make room on the roster for another player? Hoyer seemed to dismiss that idea out of hand. He’s producing, playing every day and kicking things off for the team at the top of the order. Manager David Ross repeatedly lauded Morel for his positivity and vitality. After Morel showed what he could do in the bigs, Ross has used him as a spark plug, calling the decision to put him in the leadoff spot “a leap of faith.” 

“His energy is why he’s at the top,” Ross said. “He starts it for us and the fact that he’s been one of our better players since he’s been up has really stood out. He makes everything go.”

Even after an 0-for-4 night in Saturday’s 8-0 loss to the Yankees, Morel still had a 146 wRC+ through 107 plate appearances. But it’s the peripherals that stand out through this sample size — a 21.5 percent strikeout rate and 11.4 percent walk rate.

“His at-bats have been unbelievable,” Hoyer said. “The plate discipline is probably what I’ve been most surprised and impressed with. The fact that they’ve had a chance to make an adjustment and he’s not just chasing breaking balls and things like that, it’s really impressive.”

According to Statcast, Morel swings at pitches outside the zone 21.2 percent of the time and pitches in the zone 73.4 percent of the time (the league average for those statistics are 28.6 percent and 65.9 percent, respectively). That he has such strong pitch recognition after being a high-strikeout prospect seems odd and raises questions as to whether it can be maintained over the long haul, but Stone explained that it makes sense with the type of prospect he is.

“It’s a result of the tightening (the swing) and also just another year of maturation,” Stone said. “He’s really wiry with long, lean muscles. You combine that with a hyper-mobile movement profile and it’s very common that it’s going to take until 21 or 22 for those kinds of guys to tighten up enough to where they have consistency in their swing mechanics.”

For this reason, the Cubs believe that Morel might not be just a flash in the pan, but a young, raw player who has reached the point where he can fully actualize his skills on the field. Morel will turn 23 in two weeks and seems to have a bright future. To surprise as a team, the Cubs will need players like Morel who surprise with their production and outperform expectations. Morel may have seemingly come out of nowhere, but he’s a young, talented player seeing it all come together with hard work, an example of the player development process playing out in just the right way.

“Eventually you mature enough to know what really helps you, and Chris is in that spot right now,” Stone said. “You see that confidence at the big-league level. He knows what he has to do to be successful, he’s certainly not scared, he’s prepared and knows he’s prepared and now he’s just going out and playing the game.” 

(Photo: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)

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