The Rise of Brandon Morrow
In case you haven’t noticed, Ricky Romero is no longer the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays. With his dominant start to 2012, Brandon Morrow is now clearly the best pitcher on the Blue Jays and is fast becoming one of the best pitchers in the American League. Morrow’s ceiling is so high that, if he continues to develop as he has in 2012, he could become one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Morrow has always had tremendous potential and incredible “stuff”, which is why he was drafted fifth overall by Seattle in 2006. However, his development stalled in Seattle as he bounced back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation over three seasons. In December 2009, Morrow was traded for middling reliever Brandon League and minor league player-without-a-position Johermyn Chavez. Morrow’s mismanagement by the Mariners and his trade to Toronto are two significant blights on the record of the Seattle front office, whose management style in the past decade can best be described as “lost in the wilderness”.
Morrow had an almost immediate impact in Toronto, winning ten games, fanning 178 batters in less than 150 innings and striking out 17 batters and coming without one out of no-hitting Tampa Bay in 2010. However, his 4.49 ERA and 1.38 WHIP left a lot to be desired. In 2011, Morrow led the American League with 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings, but again posted poor peripherals with a 4.72 ERA and a WHIP of 1.29.
With seven wins and a 2.90 ERA in his first twelve starts in 2012, this is without a doubt Brandon Morrow’s breakout season. He has reached a new level of dominance which evokes memories of former Jay’s ace Roy Halladay, tossing 3 complete game shutouts in just 12 games. This is triple the number of complete games and shutouts which Morrow had in his career prior to this season, and he currently leads the majors in both of these categories. His ERA and WHIP are better than that of C.C. Sabathia, Josh Beckett, Felix Hernandez and some guy named Yu Darvish. But what is the explanation for Morrow’s new-found success?
The most obvious improvement is that Morrow is allowing fewer batters to reach base than ever before, as his WHIP sits at a frugal 0.99, good enough for eighth best in all of baseball. Morrow is striking out fewer batters per nine (7.8) this season, but the drop in strikeouts translates into increased pitch efficiency, meaning that Morrow is getting more outs with fewer pitches and is pitching deeper into ballgames. He has pitched 7 innings or more five times already this season, while doing so 10 times in 30 starts last year, and 6 times in 26 starts in 2010.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment in Morrow’s approach in 2012 is his increased reliance on his four-seam fastball, as 61% of his pitches this season have been heaters, compared with 44% and 58% in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Morrow is not bringing the heat any harder this season, but rather is using his four-seamer and his off-speed pitches to induce more ground balls. On balls put in play this season, Morrow has induced 5% more grounders with his fastball, 10% more with his slider, and 56% more with his curveball, compared to 2011. Morrow has also almost entirely eliminated the use of his sinker, throwing it less than 1% of the time this year, compared to 18% and 6% in 2010 and 2011.
However he is choosing to mix his pitches this year, the results are finally starting to match Morrow’s ability and talent. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Blue Jays, whose pitching staff is the second-youngest in the American League. The Jays have surrendered the most walks in the American League, the third most home runs, are fourth in the AL East in team ERA, and desperately need an elite starter to take the reins of the pitching staff. Although Romero has been a serviceable ace for Toronto the past two seasons, the Blue Jays have lacked a truly dominant starting pitcher ever since the trade of Halladay in 2009. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that many of the pitchers in the Jays’ system, including Kyle Drabek, Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowan, are mid-to-back of the rotation starters at best. With the emergence of Morrow this season, the Jays may finally have the true stud pitcher they so desperately need to match-up against aces like Sabathia and Beckett, and ultimately, the Big 3 clubs in the AL East.
The Blue Jays are now Morrow’s team to lead, and Toronto has committed $30 million in guaranteed money to him over the next four seasons. It’s going to be fun watching Morrow this year, and in the seasons to come, to see if he can follow in ‘Doc’ Halladay’s steps and become one of the premier pitchers in baseball. If he does, Toronto may at long last have a legitimate chance of making, and even succeeding in the postseason for the first time since 1993.
…and that’s the last word.
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