Christopher Morel Redeems Himself, Ian Happ Continues Hot Hitting

The Cubs were dead in the water and it was all Christopher Morel‘s fault, or at least that’s how some viewed the situation after four innings Tuesday night. Shōta Imanaga had cruised through three frames with five strikeouts and a pair of harmless singles, but two more base knocks to begin the 4th put him in a spot of bother. What looked like a fairly routine 5-3 double play ball then turned into disaster when Morel failed to field the ball and sent it rolling to the wall.

Because the ball wedged itself beneath the padding of the dugout fence, it was ruled to have gone out of play and the Sox scored a run with men also advancing to second and third. A pop-out was followed by a two-run double to make it 3-0, then a Lenyn Sosa homer put the Cubs in a five-run hole before the inning finally ended. Only one earned run was charged to Imanaga, but it felt like the wheels had fallen off.

Morel would eventually redeem himself, just not right away as he popped out to short to end the inning. The Cubs are no strangers to fortuitous rain delays, and, while this won’t hold quite the same place as that other one you’re thinking about, the team had a chance to rally around one another.

“A couple guys being able to talk to Morel and get him back to a place where, ‘Hey, man, you’re a big part of this team. You’re going to have big at-bats later in the game,’” Ian Happ said. “And he’s done a great job of being able to turn the page throughout his career and come up with clutch hits.”

Happ led by example when he came up in the bottom of the 5th, doubling to lead off the inning and then coming around to score the Cubs’ first run on a Dansby Swanson two-bagger two batters later. That was the first of Happ’s three hits on the night as he continued a tear that started about two weeks ago. Over his last 50 plate appearances, the left fielder is slashing .318/.380/.727 with a 205 wRC+ built on four homers and six doubles.

Things really got interesting the following frame after the first two Cubs were retired quietly. Cody Bellinger was hit by a Justin Anderson slider to put one aboard for Morel, who knew what was coming. Anderson throws the slider about 53% of the time and has a tendency to hang them, which he did on the first pitch. And just like you’d expect from a guy whose luck was bound to turn at some point following a rough few weeks, Morel pounced on the mistake and sent it screaming into the bleachers 403 feet away.

“Super mature by him,” Patrick Wisdom told reporters after the game. “He could have kind of cashed it in, if you will, after the play. But we’re there picking him up and he comes up with a big homer. He’s just an exciting player to be around. I think he’s built for those moments.”

Like Morel, Wisdom is another guy who’s been maligned for his lack of consistency this season and in the past. Like Morel, Wisdom got in on the home run action against the White Sox. After — who else? — Ian Happ singled, Wisdom pinch-hit for Michael Busch and worked a full count before depositing an outside changeup into the basket just to the left of the batter’s eye.

Tie game.

“I almost kissed him,” Morel told Taylor McGregor of his reaction to the dinger.

Luis Robert Jr. put the Sox back on top in the 7th, after which the Cubs went down in a hurry to dampen the mood significantly. But then, wouldn’t you know it, they rallied again. Bellinger walked and busted it to second to beat the force on an infield single by Morel, then Happ — who else? — doubled both of them home to give the Cubs a lead they would not surrender.

Through his first 80 PAs this season, Happ had a 121 wRC+ and looked more or less like the same guy we’re used to seeing. Then he stunk up the joint with a 63 wRC+ over his next 106 PAs. Interestingly enough, he had just one homer in each of those samples. The numbers since have already been noted, bringing him to a 113 wRC+ on the season. That’s just below his 115 career average, putting him in line for yet another season of solid offensive production.

For what it’s worth, his 41 outfield assists since 2017 are tied for 11th among all outfielders. Provided you’re not expecting him to be elite, which no reasonable person should, Happ is a perfectly cromulent left fielder.

Morel is somewhat similar in that he’s prone to high highs and low lows, which is probably the reason so many fans have a distorted view of his and Happ’s contributions. It’s like when someone once tried to argue with me that Reggie Miller wasn’t good because he scored most of his points in the 4th quarter. Not only was that demonstrably false, but it was actually a strong argument in favor of Miller’s greatness.

Many have similarly decided to make up their own facts about Morel, either saying that he strikes out more than anyone else or that should learn to place the ball wherever he wants rather than just swinging hard and hoping. Morel is actually 11th on the team (min. 20 PAs) in K-rate and sixth in whiff percentage, plus he’s third in walk rate. And good luck trying to aim batted balls against today’s pitchers, something a lot of folks seem to think is possible for a lot of hitters.

Anywho, Morel is up to a 101 wRC+ on the season and should continue to improve as his actual stats track more closely toward his expected numbers. That latter set may regress a little in the process, but the point is that the disparity is so great that poor fortune is clearly playing a role. While there will almost always be noise between them, the likelihood of regression or progression increases as the gap grows larger.

Tuesday night was the second time in as many wins that the Cubs have seen a boneheaded defensive blunder countered quickly by a big homer. As fun a trend as that is on the back end, we could all do without the initial mistake. That’s easier said than done with Morel, whose play at third base has — somewhat predictably — left more than a little to be desired. Add the shoddy defense to a cold bat and you get detractors for days.

With David Bote back in Chicago and a cooling Michael Busch perhaps giving way to Bellinger and Wisdom at first base more frequently, Morel may get more time as the DH moving forward. Though he hasn’t traditionally hit as well there, it at least means he doesn’t need to make up for himself as often.

Just like with Happ, expecting Morel to be some kind of elite slugger and judging him in that light would be folly of the highest order. Likewise, blaming one or both of them for what the players around them aren’t doing is nonsensical. That’s not to say neither has been deserving of criticism at any point, just that much of what gets lobbed their way is negative to the extreme.

When you even out the peaks and valleys to get better context, you’re left with players who provide solid contributions on the whole and can help the Cubs win as long as the front office puts them in position to do so.

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