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From the minors to one of MLB’s hottest hitters: Christopher Morel has had a wild journey with 2023 Cubs

11 months agoAndy Martinez

HOUSTON — There’s something distinct about taking in batting practice at Minute Maid Park.

When the retractable roof is closed and the crowd hasn’t fully trickled in, the crack of the bat can be heard crystal clear on every swing. But, when a player really barrels a ball — especially a right-handed hitter — and carries it high into left field, the sound is like no other.

As the ball travels and carries over the Crawford Boxes or the high wall in left-center field, it will hit off advertisement signs, unique to the ballpark.


The bang of the baseball against the metal is something you can only really hear in batting practice — if someone does it in a game, the noise of the crowd makes it nearly inaudible. But in a semi-quiet building, the clash is as clear as the waves crashing on a quiet beach.

“When you hit it hard, that sound echoes,” Christopher Morel said. “It’s fun.”

Morel would know — he’s one of those hitters that was routinely pounding balls off the left-field walls in batting practice during the Cubs’ three-game set in Houston last week. But, while the routine homers off the left field wall seem like fun and make for a spectacle for those early-arriving fans, for Morel there’s a method to them.

“Once the day starts, I try to find my rhythm,” Morel said of his batting practice routine. “I try to form my swing and control my base.”

Morel’s swing is a powerful one — when he makes a perfect connection the ball can and often will travel very, very far. It’s a one-of-a-kind swing on the Cubs. One that made him the best hitter in the minor leagues (.330 AVG, 1.156 OPS in 29 games) before being recalled to the majors. But that swing and the offensive approach are far from perfect.

It’s the reason he started the 2023 campaign in the minor leagues.

At Peace

Late in March at Cubs camp, Morel was summoned to David Ross’ office at the team’s facility at Sloan Park.

Ross and the coaching staff were informing the 23-year-old that he wasn’t heading to Chicago to open the season and would be with the Iowa Cubs as the campaign opened.

“I was calm,” Morel said. “These are things that I have learned with time, they are things I can’t control. What I could control, I controlled — which was to go out and do my job wherever they put me.”

Morel was told the reason they were choosing to option him to begin the year was to work on that offensive approach.

“They told me exactly that I didn’t make the team because I had to improve my strike zone, I had to reduce the strikeouts,” Morel said. “From there it was just keep enjoying and not give up and keep working.”

The early results, from a strikeout perspective, weren’t necessarily there — in 134 plate appearances with the I-Cubs, he was striking out 30.6% of the time, a shade under his mark in the big leagues last year (32.2%). But the rest of his numbers were eye-popping; 11 home runs, 31 RBI, a 183 weighted runs created plus and a 12.7% walk rate, which was his highest mark since rookie ball in 2017 in the Dominican Summer League.

“I felt that I was doing a good job. I was having a good time, which was important, with the teammates that had been with me since my first year in pro ball,” Morel said. “I stayed calm. I stayed focused on what I needed to work on.”

It was clear — there wasn’t going to be any more learning in the International League with Iowa. The Cubs knew that any more growth was going to have to come at the major league level.

“It’s a tough place to learn,” Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “And a lot of guys that have come through the minor leagues that have had more time, probably are able to learn at a slower pace. But he’s here, he can help us, and he’s gonna have to learn on the fly a little bit.

“And there’s not a better place to do it.”

So, the Cubs recalled Morel to have him continue his development and help the team win games.

Statement comeback

Since he’s been back, Morel has been on an absolute tear, homering 8 times in his first 11 games, the first Cub to do that in modern history. He homered again on Sunday and 6 of those 8 home runs have traveled at least 400 feet, showcasing his natural power.

The strikeout rate, though, is still there (37.5% after Sunday’s game). But when he’s producing at the clip he is (.370/.396/.957/259 wRC+), the strikeout rate isn’t too much of a concern.

“Christopher is far from a finished product, when it comes to what his plate discipline and what he understands what he can handle — we’re never going to take the aggressiveness away from him,” Kelly said. “I think you have to live with the swing and miss. There’ll probably always be a little bit of swing and miss for him.”

Now the challenge for Kelly, his coaching staff and Morel is to find a way to continue to have that offensive production, so the strikeout rate isn’t as much of a concern. That was part of the problem last year — after his hot start, Morel struggled when the league adjusted to him. In his first 64 games, Morel had a 28.9% strikeout rate, but was slashing .264/.338/.463 with a 125 wRC+. The rest of the year, he slashed .182/.253/.380 with a 78 wRC+ and a 38.2% strikeout rate. The offense production wasn’t negating the strikeout rate late in the season. The Cubs are hopeful that they can get him to a point where, even if he’s striking out at a high clip, there’s offensive production to offset it. 

“I think as he gets more mature and starts to figure out — especially hitting at the top of the lineup a little bit more he’s gonna see how guys attack him a little bit more — and we tailor a little bit better game plan for him. It’s a little more centered on one or two pitches and eliminating pitches,” Kelly said. “So, as he gets more comfortable, he’s just gonna get better and better at eliminating pitches. And it’s the high heater, the four-seam for all of these guys. And they just start to figure out not necessarily what the top of the strike zone is, but the top of their zone and how they handle those pitches.”

That’ll allow Morel to continue to be a productive offensive player for the Cubs, maybe not the whopping 1.353 OPS/259 wRC+ level player, but one that can be a boost to the Cubs lineup anywhere — at the top, middle or bottom of it.

“It’s a work in progress,” Kelly said. “He’s going to swing, he’s going to swing hard and pitchers make mistakes.

“And Christopher, when guys make a mistake, he’s gonna make them pay. And we just want to keep that mentality with him like, ‘Hey, this is your zone, you’re gonna dominate that zone and they’re going to give you something to hit.’”

That’s going to allow him to hit the ball hard and far, much like he did at Minute Maid Park, where the clanking of the ball against the advertisement signs was as common as the crack of the bat.

“One swing changes the game with him,” Kelly said. “There’s times where he’s not going to look like he was on time for a pitch, or he might have been guessing. But I think that’s just part of what his swing profile is, and how hard he swings it.

“He just has to learn that when that ball is in that zone, it’s go and then he’ll start to figure out how to put on the brakes a little bit better. But you’re gonna see some of those swings, but we’re also gonna see some that end up 450 feet away that change the game.”

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