From the plate and the field, FAU shortstop Mitch Morales grows into a team leader

Mohamed Abdihakim

FAU shortstop Mitch Morales boasts a team-leading 35 hits thus far in the 2013 season. Photo by Michelle Friswell
FAU shortstop Mitch Morales boasts a team-leading 35 hits thus far in the 2013 season. Photo by Michelle Friswell

The shortstop position in baseball is usually reserved for the team’s best athlete.

This fact is unsurprising considering that some of the hardest and unpredictable hits come through the middle of the infield.

Mentality and approach are critical to a middle infielder’s success, as a shortstop has to be a leader on defense and a scrapper at the plate.

In the case of FAU’s Mitch Morales, a longtime fan and student of the game, it’s a more cerebral and self examinatory approach that’s helped him take the next step as a player.

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A shortstop’s time on defense is divided into orchestration and execution.

The orchestration involves being a defensive spearhead, constantly talking and letting teammates know where the play is being made. It’s common to hear, “play to first!”, “double play, double play!”, or “two outs, make the easy play!”

The execution aspect combines the defensive and offensive phases of the game, with his bat and glove being equally important.

Morales is starting to sharpen his craft and establish himself in each area.

“I’m kind of a leader on defense, controlling the pace of the game,” Morales said. “On offense, I’m the scrappy guy they want to get on base, helping any way I can.”

And he really does seem to be helping.

Among FAU’s regular starters, the sophomore out of Wellington, Fla., leads the Owls with a .354 batting average, which also puts him at eighth among all qualifying Sun Belt Conference hitters.

But it wasn’t always so rosy at the plate for the Owls’ shortstop.

As a freshman in 2012, Morales finished the season batting .246, second lowest among FAU starters. Fans were critical, and his coaches weren’t too pleased, so he heard skepticism from all angles.

Morales proved to be his biggest critic.

Mitch Morales leads all FAU starters with a .354 batting average, eighth among Sun Belt Conference hitters. Photo by Michelle Friswell
Mitch Morales leads all FAU starters with a .354 batting average, eighth among Sun Belt Conference hitters. Photo by Michelle Friswell

“I’m definitely harder on myself than anyone else is on me,” he said. “I can feel when I’m doing something wrong.”

From that self examination, in addition to the help of his coaches, Morales managed to pinpoint a weakness in his game.

“Last year, I rolled over on a lot of pitches,” he said. “Pitchers just started really coming after me. And you know, in the Sun Belt, pitching is a strength. This year, my weakness is the change-up.”

That particular pitch has bothered him enough to result in 23 strikeouts, the third highest total on the Owls.

“As the scrappy hitter on the team, that’s way too many strikeouts,” Morales said.

However, Morales has put bat to ball more often than not, leading FAU with 35 hits in 29 games.

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On defense, Morales understands his duties.

“You have to be the vocal leader,” he said. “There are a lot of things involved at shortstop. You have to help the first, second, and third basemen, remind them where the play is going.”

Morales is proving durable for the Owls, having started 79 of 80 games in his career. Photo by Michelle FriswellThe Owls’ infielder also assists outfielders in accounting for more natural variables.

“I’m constantly turning around and talking to [outfielder] Tyler [Rocklein] or whoever is playing in the outfield,” Morales said. “You know with the wind, if a pop up is hit and the wind blows in, [the ball] is most likely going to blow five to ten feet back to me.”

Morales has been working on his individual defense as well.

Last year, his freshman season ended with 22 errors, fielding at a 90 percent clip. So far in the 2013 season, he’s fielding at 94 percent, with eight errors.

The errors are still slightly higher than Morales would like, but he remains optimistic regarding his ability.

“Defensively, I’ve been able to be more sure of my plays,” he said. “I’m not rushing as much, I’ve slowed the game down. That’s definitely helped me become more sure of my plays, and make the plays I need to make.”

In any case, there’s little doubt that Morales is a talented baseball player.

He’s shown an accurate bat and is gloving and fielding the Owls to a national ranking of 30th in Collegiate Baseball’s national polls.

More important than where Morales’s skills are, is where they’re going.

A season ago, he was a .240 hitter who received a steady diet of fastballs. This season, his batting average is tops on the team and pitchers are being forced to get creative.

Being that Morales is still only a sophomore, the question becomes: What’s next?