Brandon Morrow. Two words, one name. That’s all it took for memories, dreams, emotions, and preconceived conclusions to soar into your head and heart. For many Blue Jays fans, those feelings were positive. Toronto acquired Morrow from the Seattle Mariners back in December of 2009 in one of the most laughably lopsided trades of Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure. In the four years since, he’s had flashes on the mound that have brought tingles and jingles to our nether regions, chills we haven’t felt since watching the great Roy Halladay go to work. Unfortunately for a growing minority of the fan base, those emotions were resoundingly negative; feelings of being cheated as Morrow teases and taunts us with his ability while never completely and consistently putting it together. This massive disparity, this divergent chasm of thought, is why Brandon Morrow is the most enigmatic player on the roster. Now, with four years of Blue Jays data in the books, we can look at where the right hander has come from, and try to draw conclusions about where his career goes from here, and how he might get there.
Over his first few months in the Toronto blue–er, black, he was nothing short of a wild man. I still vividly remember that April 2010 start in Boston where he couldn’t find the strike zone to save his life, and seemed to walk everyone and their grandmother. The mechanics were a complete mess, as forget start-to-start, his windup looked a little different from inning-to-inning. The only true constant was the stuff, as every so often Morrow must have thought to himself “forget this mess”, and proceeded to blow away three straight batters with nothing but punch outs, leaving jaws across the country to be picked up off of the floor.
For the better part of two full seasons those inconsistencies remained, as while he continued to strike out batters at an elite level and made noticeable refinements to his control, the end results left a lot to be desired. In Morrow’s 325.2 innings across 2010 and 2011, he allowed 167 earned runs: a 4.62 ERA. An ugly number, yes, but the peripherals and fielding independent numbers painted a much brighter picture: FIPs and xFIPs consistently in the low-to-mid 3’s. The greatest culprit to his “failure” was his inability to finish innings once runners got on base, as evident by his absurdly low 69.0% and 65.5% strand rates. Some might call that bad luck, while others might call that a flawed approach, but either way one would think it fixable.
There’s a narrative around baseball that when a pitcher figures it out, he has “evolved from a thrower into a pitcher”. That phrase began making the rounds with Brandon Morrow in 2012 because the earned runs started drying up and his ERA plummeted. Unsurprisingly, luck was finally on his side. He set a career-best walk rate at 2.96 BB/9, but arguably more importantly, his opposing BABIP dropped 50 points and his left-on-base percentage skyrocketed to 77.3%. Both his 3.65 FIP and 4.03 xFIP for the season were his worst in a Blue Jays uniform, suggesting that not only had Morrow failed to take a step forward, he’d actually taken a step back. This may sound counterintuitive, but the reasoning is simple: his strikeouts have vanished (numbers via FanGraphs.com).
You are reading that diagram correctly. Brandon Morrow, who in 2010 easily led Major League Baseball in strikeouts per nine innings (minimum 140 innings pitched) with 10.95 – Tim Lincecum was a distant second at 9.79 – has racked up strikeouts at a below average rate over a two year sample in 2012 and 2013. To me, that’s not the evolution of a pitcher, it’s the regression of a pitcher. The question is, where did the strikeouts go?
The first thing everyone looks at when a pitcher has a declining strikeout rate is velocity. “Has he lost his stuff?” The answer with Morrow is a resounding no. His average four seam fastball velocities in his four years as a starter are 93.5 mph, 93.8 mph, 93.1 mph, and 93.5 mph – negligible differences. With the easy answer gone, we’ve got to look deeper, and I’ve found a number of startling trends surrounding his pitch usage, which I’ll elaborate below.
Back in Spring Training 2012, TSN published an article about Brandon Morrow in which he discussed putting more of an emphasis on his “slow” pitches in order to keep hitters off balance, induce weak contact, and get out of innings quicker. He felt he had become overly reliant on his fastball and slider, and truthfully he had. In 2010 and 2011, roughly 93% and 95% of his pitches were of the hard or intermediate variety, which includes his four seam fastball, sinker, cutter, slider, and split fingered fastball. What has he done in the two years since? Throw roughly 95% and 97% hard or intermediate velocity pitches. Admittedly those numbers are slightly skewed, as Morrow’s split fingered fastball has evolved into more of a split-change. The velocity and movement values have declined every year since 2010, as opposed to aiming for hard late vertical bite, it’s showing more of a gentle fade. Even so, at an average velocity of 83.9 mph in 2013, it’s hardly what one would call soft. The curveball which Morrow also spoke about? It’s seen its usage drop precipitously each year, registering at 7.32%, 5.17%, 4.93%, and 2.87% of total pitches from 2010 through 2013. This decline becomes even more exaggerated with two strikes, which you can see in the table below.
In 2013, with two strikes, Brandon Morrow threw less than 1% curveballs. In 2010, it was nearly 8%. Such absent usage allows a hitter to completely eliminate the pitch from his thought process and focus on a much narrower range of pitch velocities. It may not sound like much, but when you’re batting from a vulnerable position, having to react to a velocity disparity of 79-93 miles per hour is significantly more challenging than 84-93 miles per hour. Not to pile on or beat a dead horse, but one could hypothesise that the decline in curveballs might have something to do with the man behind the plate, arguably baseball’s worst at blocking balls in the dirt. Did Morrow not trust him? Did Arencibia not trust himself enough to call them in key situations? It’s an interesting line of thought and perhaps something I’ll tackle in another article down the road, but for now I’ll leave it there.
The second point I’d like to make about Morrow’s pitch usage focuses exclusively on his four seam fastball, namely what he does with it, what has changed, and what the results have been. I’ve summarized the sabermetric outcomes in the table below.
There are three noteworthy trends to observe here. The first is that over the four years, his zone % (percentage of fastballs that finish in the strike zone) and swing % (percentage of fastballs swung at regardless of location) have remained relatively consistent. The second trend is that Morrow’s swinging strike percentage has seen a sharp decline from his first two seasons in a Blue Jays uniform to the last two. The third and final trend is that both his contact % (percentage of fastballs that are swung at and made contact with) and O-contact % (percentage of out-of-zone fastballs that are swung at and made contact with) have risen significantly over the past two seasons. If fastball velocity is the same, and fastball movement is the same (not shown here, but it is), then the reason more fastballs are being hit must come down to location.
Evaluating command has its challenges, as it’s often difficult to look at the data and separate intent from result. There are good strikes and bad strikes, just as there are good balls and bad balls. For example: a 1-2 curveball in the dirt, while called a ball, is a significantly better pitch than a 1-2 curveball down the pipe, even if the hitter fouls it off to keep the count in your favor.
Four seam fastballs are significantly different from curveballs, or any other pitch for that matter. Traditionally they’re thrown the hardest, and with their backwards rotation they display the smallest amount of vertical drop. This has led to the myth of the rising fastball – the limits of human physiology prevent such a phenomenon from occurring, but hitters often swear that some fastballs climb upwards as they approach the plate. It’s nothing more than an optical illusion – the ball simply doesn’t drop as much as their eyes expect – but as Vernon Wells would surely attest, it leads to a high number of swings and misses at fastballs located above the strike zone.
With this in mind, I decided to look at Brandon Morrow’s tendencies using the BrooksBaseball.net Zone Profiles. The system separates the strike zone and the surrounding area into a five-by-five grid, with nine squares within the zone, and sixteen outside. My point of emphasis was on the uppermost five squares, locations that the PitchFX system classified as above the upper limit of the zone.
I grouped the 2010 and 2011 seasons – the good strikeout years – together, and did the same for 2012 and 2013. For each pair of years I looked at four seam fastballs in all counts, as well as four seam fastballs only with two strikes. Given that his 2010/2011 inning total (325.2) was significantly larger than 2012/2013 (179 .0 IP), I utilized the percentages as opposed to raw pitch count data. The results were staggering.
Between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, 21.59% of all Brandon Morrow four seam fastballs were thrown up and above the zone. Over the last two seasons, that number has dropped to 12.17%. That’s a massive difference, but given what I mentioned above about being unable to decipher between result and intent, it doesn’t necessarily mean a lot, especially when considering the control issues we know he was working through in the first two years. Interesting, but not quite compelling. However, what adds to the intrigue is when you corroborate that result with the two strike data. With two strikes, in 2010 and 2011, 26.11% of his fastballs were classified as up. In 2012 and 2013, that number was just 17.51%.
In isolation, both the disappearing curveballs and reduction in elevated fastballs might be unusual, but not great causes for concern. Together, they result in a scenario in which Brandon Morrow is artificially creating himself a smaller strike zone in which to work, particularly with two strikes. Hitters don’t have to protect up or down nearly as much, as they’re now facing a much shallower vertical depth of pitches. Not only do high fastballs and in-the-dirt curveballs generate numerous swings and misses, even when they’re called balls they alter the hitter’s eye level and make him more susceptible to well-placed subsequent pitches. Going back to what I said earlier, those are good balls. By adapting an overly aggressive and attacking approach, Brandon Morrow is throwing fewer good balls and more bad strikes.
Brandon Morrow is a very smart pitcher. Anyone who has heard him speak can quickly surmise that. But I fear that by adopting a pitch-to-contact approach, he’s limiting himself and taking away from what gives him that top of the rotation ceiling we’ve all been fawning over. He doesn’t have a finesse pitcher’s stuff (note: that’s a good thing) or command (note: that’s a less good thing), so he should stop trying to pitch like one. Randy Johnson didn’t pitch like Greg Maddux, and vice versa, for a reason. Play to your strengths. In summary, a letter:
You throw your four seam fastball so hard, gravity can barely touch it. Use that to your advantage. Elevate the damn thing and rack up the swinging strikes, especially with two strikes. You can shove. Start shovin’.
Bring back the curveball. Over your career, 102 plate appearances have ended with a curve. 25 strikeouts, 1 walk, 1 home run allowed – that’s really good. It adds so much depth to your arsenal, both vertically and in terms of velocity. And again, especially with two strikes!
Seek the middle ground between wild Brandon and efficient Brandon. Rediscover effectively wild, as it’s when you’re at your best. Your biggest fan,