Brandon Morrow: Fan Mail

I must confess, my original thought was to call this ‘Brandon Morrow, a Love Letter’. Then I rolled that around my head for thrity seconds and became uncomfortable with it. I don’t love Brandon Morrow. I don’t know the man, really, so it would be presumptuous of me to say whether I really loved him or not. I am a fan, that’s for certain. A fan, specifically, of what he has been doing with baseballs lately. He has been throwing them very effectively. The Brandon Morrow of the last two years is beginning to fade into the distance. That’s ok, we all change, and it seems that Brandon has changed into a better version of his pitching self.

This was written after a wonderful pitching clinic that Brandon conducted in Chicago. He shut out the White Sox for 9 innings, allowing 2 hits and 2 walks. He ended the game with a swinging strikeout. He’s been doing the complete game thing a lot this year, or at least a lot for him. He had one in his career before this year, and he blew through the 130 pitch mark to get there. He has 3 this year, which ties him with Justin Verlander for the league lead, he has completed all three without breaking the 120 pitch mark. All of those games are shutouts, the most in MLB.

He has a WHIP of .99, good enough for 10th in baseball. He has not,to my surprise, topped the league in any other categories. He has raised his IP per start from 5.9 to 6.5  this year, and that includes his one trip into Texas, where he was somehow melted by the heat of the Texas sun, and spit out only 2/3 of an inning later. So, how has he improved?

The short answer? Not a whole lot. Of maybe that should be “Just enough.” Morrow is throwing a similar mix of pitches, despite all the talk in spring training about a big shift to his offspeed stuff. He’s still throwing 58% fastballs, down from 62% last year. The changeup percentage has jumped, from 6% to 12%. The slider usage is down from 26% to 21%. The changeup is used almost exclusively on left-handed batters, but more on that later. Here’s the interesting thing, to me. Morrow is throwing more strikes, but batters are swinging at less of his pitches. His fastball called strikes have jumped from 19 to 25% over 2011. His opponents swing rate has dropped from 48.9% to 45.1%. This would translate into more counts that favour Morrow more often.

Batters are also making more contact, which is not usually preferable, his 81% contact rate is the highest of his career, it had been around 77% for most of his history. This extra contact, though, has worked in his favour, as balls put in play are more likely to be on the ground than ever before. Balls in play earlier in the count, while ahead in the count, and more often on the ground, have shortened up the average number of pitches per batter. Less pitches per batter means going deeper into the game.

There is a red flag here. It has to do with BABIP, and regression. BABIP is the stat that measures what happens to a ball that ends up in play, at the mercy of the fielders. Over the course of a career, every pitcher trends towards a .300 BABIP, as luck and defensive ability average out behind them. Brandon’s BABIP this year is .223. That’s stupidly low. It makes you think of fielders with vacuum cleaners hidden in their gloves, suctioning up the close-hit balls. (Has anyone thought of this? I don’t think I’ve seen a rule against it. Note for later, patent vacuum glove.) If there are no vacuum gloved fielders, it means he might be due for a lot of balls to drop in. Possibly in bunches. It’s not his fault, the ball has already left his hands. Or maybe that won’t happen. It might be less likely to happen this year, because the defense behind him may, legitimately, be superb at turning balls in play into outs. Why do I think that? Well, when listing starting pitchers from best BABIP to worst, Blue Jays starting pitchers show up four times in the top 30 results. That’s 305 innings of better than average BABIP. To think of it another way, there are nearly 2 seasons worth of starting pitching innings to judge the defense with, and they continue to be better than average. Morrow has used his defenders to maximum advantage.

Now, onto the use of the changeup (or the splitter, if Pitch f/x is to be believed). I mention I would get back to it later. It is now later. Morrow has thrown 135 changeups this season. Of those, 125 have been throw to left-handed hitters, almost 20% of his pitches to lefties are changeups. In the start against the White Sox, I was surprised to find out how he used the pitch. It’s on the chart below, in purple, labelled FS on the legend.

Normally, a pitcher will use the change-up late in the count, hoping for a swing and miss when the batter is fooled. The chart above shows the – throw by Morrow with the pitch number in the at-bat beside it. He never throws it after the third pitch of the at-bat. Morrow knows hitters sit on his fastball, and as a result, the change-up is his ‘get me over’ pitch when he needs an early strike on a lefty. With the confidence that he can put a change in the zone where he wants it, he throws it just often enough to keep lefties guessing. Now its the hitter’s turn to adjust.

Now, the last thing I’ll present are the pitch type charts for the three complete-game shutouts authored by Morrow in 2012. The first was against the Angels in Anaheim:

The Angels were dispatched with a slider fastball mix. Only 3 curveballs all night. Morrow said his command of the fastball to the low outside corner was so good he felt like he could “Throw it there with my eyes closed.”

On to a home start against the New York Mets.

At home vs. the Mets, 8 change-ups, all to lefties. There are 9 curveballs, all but one to left- handers as well. Righties were dominated with the fastball/slider combination.

Next, Chicago:

The pitch f/x cameras may need a little tweaking in Chicago, three ‘cutters’ look a lot like they fit into the ‘Slider’ cluster in the mix, so really a 3 pitch pitcher. Brandon never even got to the curveball, and the White Sox didn’t manage a third hit.

To summarize: Morrow has a lot of tolls at his disposal right now, and has, so far, been ahead of the hitters with the adjustments he makes. That makes me an even bigger fan than I was before.

Last year, with runners in scoring position, batters hit .272/.368/.526 against him. This year the line is .196/.267/.245, which is almost identical to the .186/.247/.339 against him with the bases empty. There is no change in effectiveness or approach with runners on base, which he was criticised for last season, though that may have been misguided.

I have enclosed the following picture, from Daylife, with this fan letter, but I am unsure as to how Mr. Morrow can autograph it for me.

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