The Curious Case Of Brandon Morrow

Earlier this week, Tommy Rancel of FanGraphs wrote about the Toronto Blue Jays’ Patron Saint of FIP Brandon Morrow, noting that:

With a blazing fastball, a nasty slider, and excellent peripheral stats, Morrow should be regarded as one of the best young starters in the league. Meanwhile, his ERA suggests he is more a back-end of the rotation starter.

Blue Jays fans know this frustration all too well. Our very own Drew Fairservice investigated the most common myth surrounding Morrow’s struggles, that it’s his stamina that lets him down, by comparing different sections of his pitch count:

Morrow’s numbers in the 75-100 pitch group are actually better as far as strikeouts and walks go but it seems that more balls turn in hits. His BABIP is WAY out of whack with the rest of his numbers.

However, he also noted that his velocity doesn’t typically fall that drastically and his whiff rate is similar later in games as well. In other words, Morrow gets hit harder later in his appearances despite no obvious¬†difference in the way he’s pitching.

This season we’ve seen Morrow throw more pitches than ever before in more innings while facing more batters. It’s a natural progression for a converted reliever who only threw 146 innings last season before being shut down. However, we’ve seen Morrow at his worst in his last four starts, and while his velocity might not drop that much later in games overall, it has fallen as the season has progressed.

Of course, shorter outings will contribute to ugly stamina charts that end up looking like this:

However, his awful outings with the reduced velocity are only exaggerations of what we’ve been seeing all season. We can blame Type 1 Diabetes or the lack of off season conditioning that forces an annual trip to the Disabled List during Spring Training, but neither possible explanation for his velocity drops is enough to justify his return to the bullpen. 150 effective innings from Brandon Morrow will always be better than 60.

What should take precedence over any starter vs. reliever questioning are his career numbers when it comes to opposing batter’s OPS:

  • The first time through the batting order: .651;
  • The second time through the batting order: .681;
  • The third time through the batting order: .884; and
  • The fourth time through the batting order: .916.

As Drew has already shown, his actual pitches don’t change much from early in the game to late in the game, but the outcome does. And I’ve got a little bit of a theory about this: his pitches don’t change enough.

Morrow needs to do a better job of varying locations, and begin peppering the bottom part of the zone with his fastball later in the game. This may sound obvious, but remember that fastballs are historically a more effective pitch up in the zone. While there’s some argument to be made as to the effect sequencing will have on those results, especially for a pitcher who thrives on a slider that falls low and away to right handed batters, the point remains that variation is important.

Remembering that, with recent games as an exception, the velocity on Morrow’s fastball doesn’t decrease that much overall as his pitch count increases, let’s take a look at the home runs vs. swinging strikes on his fastballs from pitch 1 – 75:

Now, here are home runs vs. swinging strikes on his fastballs after pitch 75:

In the first chart we see a ratio of four presumably hard hit balls out of 120 pitches versus the second chart which shows us three presumably hard hit balls out of 38 pitches. If the velocity isn’t changing drastically, and once again, according to this it’s not:

Pitch Bucket Whiff Rate Average Fastball velocity
1-25 11.4% 94.02
26-50 13.6% 94.03
51-75 11.1% 93.42
76-100 12.7% 93.18
100+ 11.2% 93.55

Then the distinct possibility exists that batters are simply expecting fastballs up in the zone after seeing exactly that the first couple times they go through the order. I say possibility because this is hardly conclusive, but it does support my theory.

And we also see similar outcomes in 2010 as well.

In this sense, baseball is a lot like poker. If you bluff all the time, opponents will realize and begin taking your money at will. Similarly, if you play straight all the time, opponents will realize and you won’t win much money. For Brandon Morrow, opponents are constantly gaining familiarity with his approach as a game progresses, and when he dominates as well as he does in the early part of a game, it must be difficult to go against the old adage that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Unfortunately, when facing Major League batters relying on any one approach for too long will always cause problems.