May 29, 2010. Whether or not they remember the date, Angels fans will likely remember the game itself forever. But they will not remember it for the taut Jered Weaver/Felix Hernandez pitchers’ duel, or for the 1-1 tie heading into the bottom of the 9th, or for any of the on field heroics except, that is, for the dramatic walk off grand slam finale…or, more specifically, what happened a few moments and 360 feet after Kendrys Morales hit it. Oh, yes. That walk off grand slam.
I was out of town for the game, enjoying the long Memorial Day weekend in Paso Robles, a place of great beauty and even greater wine bounty, but poor cell phone reception. After catching teasing hints of the game all afternoon, my husband and I finally settled down on the patio of our favorite sandwich place to “watch” the end via GameDay’s pitch by pitch function. It was slow loading, but we “saw” the bases fill up, every pitch during Morales’s at bat and, then, just like in the movies, our hero hit a grand slam. Just another Halos victory…except Game Day didn’t actually flash the win graphics. Instead, the game updates just sort of stopped. I chalked it up to poor reception and didn’t think anything more about it.
Imagine my utter shock and horror when I finally had both the time and the reception to read the post game wrap that evening. Then again, I doubt you have to imagine it. If you were rooting for the Angels in 2010, you probably felt the same way. When news of the severity of the break in Morales’s ankle hit the papers, that feeling only grew. But two surgeries, countless hours of physical therapy and the better part of two seasons later, however unlikely it was starting to seem to fans and probably to Kendrys himself, Morales made it back to the Angels for the 2012 season.
After such a lengthy recovery from such a severe break, I doubt that anyone expected to see Morales pick up right where he left off in May of 2010…and he definitely did not. Never the fleetest of base runners to begin with, Morales’s injured ankle has understandably slowed him down even further on the base paths. Although he gamely makes an effort to beat out the throw, it takes a long, hard hit single to get him on first. Morales’s batting average certainly looked like the Kendrys of old at the beginning of the season as he batted in the .290s for the months of April and May. His power, however, was still decidedly in the recovery stages. He only hit one home run in the month of April and then only three in May. His overall slugging percentage is noticeably down for the season.
Here’s the thing though, after a mid-summer slump, his stats are all improving, to the point that Morales’s August and early September slash lines are looking more and more like his pre-injury stats. At the beginning of the season, I had steeled myself to expect a drop off in Morales’s productivity as the year wore on, simply because he hadn’t played a full baseball season in two years and significant portions of those two years were spent off his feet, healing from surgery. But that has not been the case at all and, even more impressive, his batting stats have remained up since he resumed his old position at first base while Albert Pujols rests his ailing calf. As for his ability to play first base? Morales looks pretty darned good, digging balls out of the dirt and stretching to make the play all with a big grin on his face. His range is surely off a bit from what it was, but so far that doesn’t seem to be hampering him any way.
Considering the severity of the injury, I think this makes Morales’s 2012 season a pretty impressive recovery season. But how does it compare to other recovery seasons for players after traumatic injuries? Is Morales’s progress slow, fast or about on pace with normal? I originally had grand ideas of comparing Morales’ 2012 season to famous traumatic injuries throughout baseball history but I quickly trashed it as impractical and too filled with uneven comparisons. For example, comparing recovery from injuries in the 1970s and 80s (or earlier) to modern injuries with recoveries aided by significant technological advances in surgery and sports medicine? Or, recoveries from surgeries that have a fairly standard, nearly guaranteed recovery rate like Tommy John’s surgery or ACL surgery to something like recovery from a severe concussion? Exactly. These just aren’t fair comparisons.
So I decided to look at recovery seasons form the following injuries: Stephen Drew’s 2011 ankle fracture, Buster Posey’s 2011 fractured leg and torn ankle ligaments, and Dustin Pedroia’s 2010 broken foot. While initially it may seem like such a small group as to be cherry picking, if you think about it, this is really Morales’s injury peer group -- three other position players, known for their bats, who experienced traumatic injuries to their legs, feet and/or ankles all around the same time.
These three players’ recovery seasons run the gamut in terms of possible results. Drew returned to the D-Backs in late June 2012 to a difficult season, batting below .200 and suffering in the field as well. Drew has since batted .250 in 14 games with the A’s since his August 20th trade. However, even if he continues to play at the level through September, Drew’s 2012 stats will be significantly lower than his normal stats. Buster Posey, on the other hand, is having an excellent 2012. He seemed to pick up right where he left off at the plate and recovered fairly quickly behind it as well. Pedroia tried to do too much, too soon with his injury. He returned for only two games in 2010, against the Angels amusingly enough, but it quickly became apparent that he needed to return to the DL. Pedroia then started the 2011 season slow, both at the plate and in the field, but began to heat up in June, probably as he finished breaking in his foot. He finished the season with strong stats indicative of a typical Pedroia season.
While I think it’s clear that, even when comparing Morales’s season to this peer group, injuries and recoveries from those injuries are highly individual things, I also think it’s clear that Morales’ recovery season has been a good one. Yes, he could always have started out stronger, but with steadily improving, and late season stats beginning to look more and more like the Morales of old, he may not have picked up right where he left off when the season began but, by the time it ends, Morales isn’t going to be too far away from playing at the level either.