Brandon Morrow, and his new toys.

I’m going to say this right off the top, again, for those of you who don’t know. My favourite Blue Jay pitcher is Brandon Morrow. Even before he sent seventeen Tampa Bay Rays back to the dugout holding a letter “K” in their hands, I really loved to watch him pitch. He throws anywhere from 92 to 97mph. Sometimes his slider comes over the plate at 88mph. Seriously. Remember Brad Mills? He huffed the ole fastball up there at around 86. Mr. Slider and Mr. Fastball could get in a race, slider running around a big bend in the road, because he has to, you know, he’s a Slider. He still beats the silly little straight riding Mr. Fastball to the destination.That’s pretty ‘sick’, as the kids used to say.

I could go on about my admiration for the raw and deadly repertoire of Mr. Morrow, but I’ve got to save something for my inevitable follow-up posts, so let’s get on with it. Brandon Morrow had a makeover, and like that thing that my wife did with her hair a couple of years ago, I’m not sure what to think. He’s had a few starts to show off his new look, and I know one thing for sure. He doesn’t seem as sexy as he did. It’s because he doesn’t strike people out anymore, and we know strikeouts are sexy. At least, that’s what I though I knew about the new Brandon Morrow. Lots of people did, I’m sure. This person wrote about it. Then the new Brandon Morrow rolled into the Rogers Centre and struck out nine Mariners in 6 innings. Which is a letter “K” for everybody in the lineup, if they want to share it out like good friends do.

Which is why I’d like to talk about Clayton Kershaw.

Not that I’m giving up on Morrow, but I’d like to talk about Kershaw, as a path to saying something about Morrow. Besides, Clayton Kershaw is plenty interesting in his own right. For example, did you know he won the National League Cy Young Award last year? He did. I kind of assume that they just give that award to Halladay or Lincecum after a game of rock-paper-scissors, but they must have changed that process last year.

Back to Clayton Kershaw. He strikes out lots of people, walks very few, and threw a very accomplished 233 innings last year. He has found his keys to success, it would seem. I might have chosen Roy Halladay for this comparison, but everyone knows Halladay is a cyborg from the future, and who wants to compare a mere human being to a cyborg? I looked Kershaw up on Brooks Baseball, and, after wading through a few of the graphs, I assembled this picture from four of Kershaw’s 2012 starts.

Four starts from 2012, Horizontal and Vertical movement.

As the caption says, these are all the pitches Kershaw threw in four different starts this season. Vertical movement is on the vertical axis, Horizontal movement is on the horizontal. Different colours indicate different pitch types. Brooks has several other ways of breaking down a pitching performance, which could only be put into one graph if you could draw in 6 dimensions. My photo editing program doesn’t have a button for that, so we’ll go with 2 dimensional graphs for now. First, please note the similar overall shape of each game. The game in the lower left was played in Houston, where the pitch cameras that make this system work may be calibrated a little differently. Even considering that, we have the same thing happening each game. A cluster of rising fastballs in green at the top, the tighter the cluster, the more identical each pitch is on arrival. Why do I call this a rising fastball? Funny thing, there is so little sink on these fastballs, compared to the effect of gravity on a normally thrown ball, that the fifteen inches of ‘rise’ in the Brooks Baseball graph cannot contain them. These fastballs care not for the limits of your standard graph! That’s just ridiculous. Remind me never to step in the box against Kershaw. There are a few changeups in yellow just to the right of the fastball cluster, these fade a little more than the fastball. He throws a good selection of biting sliders, shown in orange, and about four or five big curveballs that have a huge drop on them. I’m sure he mixes those in just to keep everybody honest in the batter’s box. Four pitches, four similar sized clusters, Clayton Kershaw is going to ride this horse until it drops. And why not? He’s 2-0 with a 1.78 ERA as I write this.

Now, since I went to all that trouble to look at the very steady methods of Mr. Kershaw, allow me to do the same with one Brandon Morrow.

What lovely pitch clouds we have here! Now, 2 of these starts are away, and two are at Rogers Centre, so the two on the right will be more consistent than the other two. However, without looking at the scatter diagrams, we can see from the legend, that Morrow uses between 4 and 6 different pitches per start. Now, that 6th pitch may be some confusion on the part of the pitch f/x computer, which assigns a name to pitches to the best of its ability. Morrow was throwing a cut-fastball last year, and the computer may be trying to find it where he hasn’t thrown it at all. There is more going on here than computer error, though. Sometimes the curveballs have more sideways break than the sliders, other times they are right about the same. Ptich f/x also sees four seamers, 2-seamers an sinkers, sometimes overlappnig clusters, sometimes not. That nice tight cluster of fastballs that Kershaw shows us is only there in his first start, on the upper left graph, with Morrow. His fastball will slide across the zone in a variety of ways. This might make him effectively wild some days. Other days he might have trouble with the heater not being where he wants it all the time.

Even in his most recent start against the Mariners he has three curveballs that didn’t drop at all. Flat breaking pitches are often the kind of pitches that get turned into extra base hits. Morrow has not been shy about using his new pitches, but the results seem to show that he hasn’t been able to count on getting them to do what he wants all the time. I’m not surprised by that, but it’s nice to have the pictures to back it up.

The new Brandon Morrow has spoken about getting quicker outs and being efficient. I think the idea of pitching to contact, of getting deeper into games, is a valid one. Where a fireballer like Morrow might want to leverage his ability to get swings and misses, is only after he’s found himself in trouble. The knock against Morrow, in the past, has been his inability to work out of trouble with runners on base. So, what’s been happening when he’s been in trouble?

In the game in Kansas City, Morrow recorded three strikeouts.Two of them came with a runner on third base. The third was against a hitter who had homered of Morrow in an earlier at-bat. Against Seattle, he struck out nine, as I said before, but Seattle has the second highest strikeout total in the AL right now, that’s going to happen. Whenhe needed strikeouts, what did he do? Every time Seattle had a runner in scoring position, Morrow came up with a strikeout. Maybe he’s trying to be his own high leverage relief pitcher. That’s an idea from this Fangraphs article about Roy Halladay. If it is part of the mentality, of rearing back to make the high effort pitches only when necessary, Morrow is certainly blessed with the arm to do that.

What am I getting at here? Well, I think I’ve come to believe two things. The first one is that the old Brandon Morrow is gone. I don’t think he’ll ever find himself in a position to strike out 17 ever again. The second thing is that the new Brandon Morrow has not arrived yet. I don’t think we’ll really know what he’s done with himself until much later. Maybe after the All-Star Break? He’s not been afraid to play with his new pitches, but he really hasn’t broken them is yet.

It is unusual, and interesting, to see this kind of change in a pitcher. It seems to be what happens after surgery, and many try to re-invent themselves after abject failure. Ask R.A. Dickey. Morrow hasn’t hit bottom, or had his arm fall apart, though. He’s made these changes because he thinks he can be better for them. That’s really the kind of talent and thought that make me happy he plays for the team I cheer for every day.

Brandon Morrow, then and now.

The Blue Jays acquired Brandon Morrow over the winter of 2009-2010. He came to the Blue Jays with a wicked fastball, and almost total inability to find the strike zone. He walked 26 batters in his first 35 innings. Then Bruce Walton and he decided it would be prudent to drop his arm slot.

Morrow’s fortunes turned around, and he’s been the Blue Jays’ de facto ‘Number 2’ starter ever since. He has had his ups and downs, but after a strong finish to last season he seemed mentally ready to take the ‘Ace’ label and run with it. He signed a 20 million dollar extension over the winter of 2011/2012. His quotes from that day, (go ahead, click the link, I’ll be here when you come back), indicate his confidence was quite high. Mine would be too, on the day I got extended.

I was curious to see what Brandon Morrow had actually changed in the 400 or more innings he’s logged since 2010. Especially since there was all the excitement last year over his having developed a cut fastball.

So, just for fun, I grabbed 2 months from and took a look at Morrow’s pitch selection, and the kinds of outcomes he’s generated from his pitches. I took June of 2010, the first full month after the arm slot change, and the first 2 starts of 2012.

First, the pitch mix.

First off, the sinker has disappeared. From 18% of the time to 2%. It also doesn’t sink nearly as much when he does use it, with three inches less vertical break than back in the old days. Second, the four-seam fastball is much straighter, with only 2 inches of horizontal movement now, compared to almost 7 inches in 2010. The rest of his pitch usage is quite similar, and the change-up has really been falling off the table, with 7 more inches of vertical break. The cutter? Don’t see it on the chart do we?

Now, Brandon started 5 games in June of 2010, and only 2 so far this month, so when we chart outcomes, 2012 is only looking at a good game against the Indians, and a homer happy night at Rogers Centre against Baltimore. I should probably revisit this chart in May.

From the top down, the first thing I would note is that the lack of movement on the fastball has had a huge impact on Morrow’s results. When the whiffs go from 28% to 11%, all that contact has to go somewhere. Same number of grounders, and a 15% jump in fly balls means a bunch of balls leaving the yard. The change-up used to be one of his better groundball options, but even with the extra break I noted above, two-thirds of those that are hit are getting lifted in the air too. Also interesting, its only a 46 pitch sample over these 2 months, but none of Morrow’s curveballs were put in the air, maybe that’s his better double-play inducing pitch.

So, to summarize, the fastball looks almost as hard, but much too straight.I would think he has, indeed made an effort to master the change-up, but it hasn’t got him a single whiff yet this year. Looks like the cutter was an experiment that’s been put on the shelf for now.

I am fascinated by Morrow and his electric arm, so I’ll be sure to come back to this in a couple of weeks and see what adjustments he’s made. Hope you’ll join me.