Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How has Brandon Morrow improved so much lately?

Forget for a second that he’s walked a batter almost every two innings this season or that he’s never really had a full-time job as a starting pitcher at the Major League level until this season. Ignore his rough April and focus on what he’s done lately.

In his first ten starts this season, Brandon Morrow went 3-4 with a 6.66 ERA. He had an 11.7 K/9 rate and 5.76 BB/9 during those ten starts, only one of which lasted longer than six innings. As a team, the Toronto Blue Jays were 5-5 in games that Morrow started.

Since a May 31st start against the Tampa Bay Rays, Morrow has been on fire. He has since gone 2-2 with a 1.80 ERA. His K/9 rate has gone down to 7.88 K/9 but what’s amazing is his 2.7 BB/9 number, not to mention the fact that he has only allowed one home run in six starts. But what has changed? What has caused Morrow to transform himself from an average pitcher to an above-average hurler that the Blue Jays can now rely on?

Well, that improved BB/9 rate is a start. Allowing almost 3 less walks per nine innings is certainly a step in the right direction, and shows that he has harnessed some control as we roll into summer.

But there’s more to it than that. Looking at Morrow’s career numbers, he’s never really been a groundball pitcher. He’s typically allowed more fly balls, which has made him somewhat prone to allowing home runs. This season is different. While Morrow began the season allowing more fly balls, we have seen a reversal in his numbers of late.

By looking at the chart at FanGraphs, it is clear that Morrow’s increased groundball rate has something to do with his success. Coincidentally, we see perhaps the sharpest increase of all in his LOB% (runners left on base). In his first 10 games, Morrow was only able to strand more than 70% of runners twice. Prior to his game against Cleveland, Morrow had stranded more than 70% of runners in his last four starts, and more than 75% in his last two.

Despite the fact that Morrow’s strikeout numbers have dropped off slightly, his improved walk rate combined with the new found ability to induce ground balls has helped him much more. Less runners on base means less chances for the other team to score, and more ground balls means more chances for double plays if anybody manages to get on.

Should Morrow continue with these types of performances, it will be clear that the Blue Jays won the trade they made this off-season when they sent Brandon League and Yohermyn Chavez to Seattle to acquire the young right-hander.

Morrow was initially drafted by the Mariners with the 5th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Though he managed to make five starts in 2008 and another ten in 2009, he was primarily used as a reliever during his time in the Majors while even spending time as the closer for Seattle.

Since the trade to the Blue Jays, he has become a full-time starter. With just over 2 years in service time to start the season, Morrow’s rights will be under team control until the end of the 2013 season. One year longer than Brandon League.