The title question gives us several possible answers. The one that I’m going to rule out immediately is “Injured Brandon Morrow.” Obviously if Brandon Morrow is injured in 2014, the Blue Jays aren’t going to get much from him therefore, I’m going to take his (at least partial) health as a given and we’ll proceed with the discussion with that in mind.
Let’s look at some numbers from Brandon Morrow’s time in Toronto as a starter. 2010 and 2011 were quite similar to each other. In 2010, Morrow threw 146 1/3 innings and had a 4.49 ERA, a 3.16 FIP, and a 3.48 xFIP. In 2011, he had his career high in innings at 179 1/3 with a 4.72 ERA, 3.64 FIP and a 3.53 xFIP.
In both seasons, Morrow underperformed his peripherals but was one of the top strikeout pitchers in the league with a 28.3% K rate in 2010 and 26.1% rate in 2011. Morrow has made incremental improvements in his control, with a 10.1% BB rate in 2010 and an 8.9% walk rate in 2011.
Despite only throwing 124 2/3 innings in 2012, Morrow had a career-best ERA (2.96) although, for a change, his DIPS marks were worse in his ERA in 2012 with a FIP of 3.65 and xFIP of 4.03. He had a low HR/FB mark and a career high ground ball rate that allowed his ERA to outperform his other numbers. He had a career best BB% at 8.1% but his strikeout percentage was much lower than his 2010 and 2011 totals at 21.4%.
At this point, I’m not going to consider his 2013 season (we’ll talk about that later).
So the big question comes here: What caused Morrow to outperform his DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics) in 2012 and underperform them in 2010 and 2011? The reason that this is an important question is because ERA reflects actual performance while the DIPS reflect expected performance. Things like FIP, xFIP, SIERA, etc., are great for trying to project performance in the future but when it comes to telling us what actually happened on the baseball field in the past, they’re not very useful.
What was he doing better in 2012 that he wasn’t in earlier seasons? It’s not velocity. Morrow’s velocities on all of his pitches have remained fairly consistent throughout his years in Toronto. While there was a dip in velocity from his fastball in 2012 (less than 1 mph) it also went back up in 2013 so I don’t think we can look at his declining strikeout numbers as a result of a lack of velocity.
There are two things that really stand out (and they are both interconnected). The first is that in 2012, Morrow seriously ramped up his usage of his splitter that he had stopped using as much in 2011. While he had been using the splitter about 11% of the time in 2010, it fell to about 4% in 2011 and came back up to about 11.5% in 2012.
When we look at the charts, his ground-ball percentage was far higher in 2012 (41.1%) than 2011 (36%) but only slightly higher than in 2010 (40.4%). So, what we’re discovering is that by reverting to a similar pitch selection as in 2010 (when his FIP and xFIP were much lower than his ERA), Morrow was able to turn things around and outperform his FIP and xFIP in 2012. If you recall, in 2011 Morrow only gave up one double play ball (in his second last start of the year) and that number went up to a much more normal amount (eight) in 2012.
The other element to this equation was the fact that in 2010 and 2011, Morrow was getting elite level strikeout percentages and swing-and-miss percentages (Whiff rates) at 11% and 11.5% (respectively). In 2012, that percentage dropped significantly to 9% while simultaneously increasing the number of pitches that he threw in the zone (from 49.3% in 2011 to 51.9% in 2012).*
I’m actually going to only discuss 2013 by saying the following: before getting hurt, all the numbers were trending in the same direction as 2012 but Morrow was using the splitter even more along with a small increase in the use of a cutter combined with a slight decrease in four-seam fastball and curveball use. He saw a further decline in strikeout percentage and whiff rates but a greater reduction in walk percentage.
If Morrow emerges from his latest bout of arm troubles healthy and being able to maintain the same velocity and sharpness to his pitches, I’m concerned that his inclination is going to be to pitch to contact much more. Morrow’s strengths are somewhere in between the pure power pitcher with outstanding strikeout and whiff percentages and the “pitch-to-contact” guy who has much more command and control but more more average strikeout rates.
2010 Brandon Morrow actually provides a very nice hybrid. He threw his splitter (which acts as a changeup) more than in 2011 and was able to get a lot of ground balls but also missed a lot of bats and posted elite strikeout levels for a starter. If Morrow can get the 40% ground ball rates and 26% strikeout rates from 2010 but combine that with the greater control that he has been developing, we could see a true ace step up in the Blue Jays’ rotation.
Unfortunately, my gut tells me that 2010/2011 strikeout machine Brandon Morrow is behind us and, with the accumulation of arm issues, he won’t be able (or willing) to rely on his swing-and-miss stuff and will continue down the “pitch-to-contact” path that he’s been on which was the same path that made Roy Halladay such a great pitcher. The fact is that Brandon Morrow is not Roy Halladay. I think that if Morrow finds a happy medium, he could be outstanding but if he continues to pitch to contact, he’ll be a solid #3 pitcher but nothing more.**
*Note: This is a different statistic than strike percentage. In normal stats, strikes are counted on any pitch that is either in the zone or swung at. Pitches outside of the zone that are either hit or swung at are counted as strikes. In Zone Percentage, location of the pitch relative to the strike zone is the only thing that matters.
** Assuming he’s healthy.