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.

Comments (19)

  1. Acknowledging that catcher’s ERA is a crock, couldn’t the catcher help in changing pitch calls/locations later in the game as well?

    Basically, I’m trying to pin this on Molina.

  2. I think Morrow’s complete inability to pitch out of the stretch and strand runners at an average rate is plaguing him far more than his tendency to fall off late in games.

  3. Sounds like Morrow should consider Einstein’s theory of insanity. I suspect his Mariner numbers were eerily similar.

  4. I’m with Fullmer Fan…if you can’t hit your spots pitching out of the stretch, just go out of the windup full time. The marginal number of extra bases runners are going to take due to getting a better jump aren’t going to be turn into as many runs if you’re still able to pitch effectively.

  5. Also seems like lately he is getting lit up earlt on. I know last night he was constantly behind in the count. The the batter knows that the fastball is coming. Last year he always seemed to work ahead in the count. Seemed fearless.

  6. I had been guessing that he was somehow tipping his fastball, however so slightly. But the lack of variation theory seems much more plausible. Could be a bit of both though. I haven’t seen him tipping his pitches but I haven’t tried very hard yet to find it and also cant get a look at him from the batters viewpoint very easily. If he even takes a different looking start to windup, or alittle bit higher leg kick, whatever – it could explain the results he is getting.

  7. It should be obvious to all and sundry that Morrow has problems out of the stretch. His splits stats for this year, last year, and his entire career bear that out. This is probably a mechanical issue as opposed to a mental issue. How to fix it? I’ve no idea. Anyway, this leads to the ridiculously low LOB% and an ERA that doesn’t match the defense-independent stats.

  8. “…if you can’t hit your spots pitching out of the stretch, just go out of the windup full time.The marginal number of extra bases runners are going to take due to getting a better jump aren’t going to be turn into as many runs if you’re still able to pitch effectively”.

    That’s ridiculous, unless you consider every runner that reaches first stealing second and third a “marginal number of extra bases”.

  9. “Get Samples 123″ is giving away free sample of dog food from the brand flint river ranch. Try it and treat your dog!

  10. This whole discussion about BM seems to focus on later innings. None of this explains why he sucks early in the game. Teams are hitting on him from the start of the game. He’s not fooling anyone. They just sit on his flat fastball. He needs more break or to pitch better around the edges of the zone. His pattern is easy to pick up.

    • That’s just not true. Look at his “through the batting order” splits that I posted. Maybe you could say it about his last four starts, but that’s an outlier in general that probably has something to do with him pitching more innings than ever before, as I tried to make plain in the first few paragraphs.

  11. One suggestion for Brandon is to go watch last year’s 17K, 1-hitter, and watch it a few times over. Get a sense of how you pitched, where you pitched. Check your body language also. Right now, he does not look confident on the mound, at least with the better hitters. He needs to pitch from a place of confidence in his stuff, which he must know is top-of-the-rotation. I think that, in the offseason, he should work on changing his motion, especially from the set position. His hands are way too low at the stretch, and he turns to his right too far. That takes away from the location of his fastball, which as rightly noted here are too often in the middle of the zone. He also should start his breaking pitches further to his right. More times than not, they break in front of the plate-out of the zone and are tough for his catcher to handle, especially an issue with runners on base. And sorry to say this for Jays fans, the ballpark is terrible for pitchers. He would be better served with a change of scenery, a grass field with a differnt coaching staff. Just my two cents.

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