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Community Projection Review: Left Field

Here's the community projection review for Nyjer Morgan.

Community: .274/.318/.348

ZiPS: .262/.315/.318

Actual: .307/.369/.388 (including time spent with the Nationals)

Bonus: The community guessed that Morgan would hit leadoff in 43 games for the Pirates; actually he hit leadoff in 47, plus 47 more for the Nationals.

RDV across the sea was the closest guesser, predicting that Morgan would hit .300/.350/.380.

I'm sure the last thing anyone wants is another disquisition on the value of Nyjer Morgan, so let's talk about Lastings Milledge instead. 

My general impression is that Pirates fans were pretty happy with Milledge in 2009, and I think that's justified, even though Milledge is at the age where he's supposed to be improving, and yet his overall numbers with the Bucs (.291/.333/.395) were relatively close to his career numbers.

His defense improved. In Washington, he was blasted for taking poor routes in the outfield, and UZR ranked him well below average; in Pittsburgh, that suddenly changed. There might be a temptation to chalk up the sudden statistical improvement to the peculiar dimensions of PNC Park and the peculiar way the Pirates have chosen to position their outfielders, but after watching him for a few months, I can believe that Milledge is at least an average defensive outfielder. He occasionally threw to the wrong fielder or took weird routes, but he showed a great arm, good hands, and hustle that defied his reputation for having a poor attitude.

Milledge also stayed out of trouble in Pittsburgh and quelled some doubts about his character in part by staying in an irrelevant game after smashing into a wall in late September. That may not mean much, and the showboating Milledge who isn't mentally focused in games could come back after the novelty of a new organization wears off. But it's possible he's just growing up.

There's nothing in Milledge 2008 stat line that proves he's going to break out next year. All we know for certain about him right now is that he can hit for average. But he's been a highly touted prospect for a while now, and this year he made improvements in his defense and his attitude. His hitting could be next.

In the abstract, the career path of a major league baseball player looks like the shadow of a check mark--incremental improvement until age 27 or 28, and then a longer, but slower, decline. In practice, though, everyone is different, and rarely are rates of improvement and decline perfectly consistent or gradual. Some players burst on the scene as rookies and then never again play so well; some peak very late. And sometimes, a very talented player like Milledge will stumble around for a few years before hitting his stride. As WTM points out in the comments, the broken finger that caused Milledge to miss time in May could have had an effect on him, too, and may at least partially explain his lack of obvious hitting progress. If Milledge's hand was bothering him at all, this might not have been a likely year for a breakout anyway, since hand injuries can often affect a player's power.

That doesn't mean Milledge is going to break out next year. But it wouldn't shock me if he did. Before this season PECOTA compared him to players like Ellis Burks, Andre Dawson, Nick Markakis, Grady Sizemore and Dwight Evans. That might sound ridiculous, and next year's projection will be a little less rosy, but those names didn't show up because of random chance. Milledge was drafted 12th overall in 2003. He made it to the big leagues shortly after his 21st birthday, and his minor league profile showed he deserved to be there. He hit fairly well in the majors at 22. Players like him don't grow on trees, and the Pirates were lucky to be able to grab him when his value was low. Now they have to hope that he's one of those players who improves in rapid bursts.