Are Brandon Morrow's Days as a Strikeout King Over?

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Morrow used to be a dominant strikeout pitcher, but his K-rate hasn't been close to the league leaders in three years.

This season the Blue Jays find themselves in the unenviable position of having three pitchers in their rotation that are both performance and health risks. Other than dependable veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the range of outcomes for the rest of the rotation is massive. Dustin McGowan, Drew Hutchison, and Brandon Morrow are all talented guys with the ability to put together some quality starts, but none of them are even close to a sure thing at this point.

Considering that McGowan is something of a ticking time bomb and Drew Hutchison is essentially a rookie, in theory the most trustworthy of the threesome should be Brandon Morrow. The problem is that even at age 29, it's somewhat unclear what Morrow is.

We know that Brandon Morrow is a power pitcher. Morrow has a career fastball velocity of 94.0 mph and in his first start in Tampa he sat at 93.4 mph, touching 95 with some consistency.

We also know that Brandon Morrow has had trouble with injuries. Morrow famously never topped 200 innings in a season, although to be fair to him the Jays have been fairly cautious with their long-time potential ace, and he has managed less than 180 innings over the last two years combined.

A player who throws hard but has had problems with injuries is hardly a rare archetype, but one thing that always made Morrow unique was his ability to rack up strikeouts. In his first two seasons with the Blue Jays he did so at a remarkable rate; a league-best rate in fact. The table below shows the league leaders in K/9 during for the 2010 and 2011 seasons:

Pitcher

K/9

Brandon Morrow

10.53

Clayton Kershaw

9.46

Tim Lincecum

9.45

Yovani Gallardo

9.34

Jon Lester

9.17

League Average

7.13

Not only was Morrow the best, it wasn't even close. However, despite the strikeouts, Morrow often struggled with run prevention. This led him to be one of the great sabermetric puzzles of his era, a Ricky Nolasco-like figure whose ERA was nowhere near his peripherals.

Then in 2012, something changed. Morrow put up a 2.96 ERA and many declared that the hard-throwing right hander had finally arrived. The advanced stats guys had predicted this. After all, Morrow was bound to eventually have a course correction that would bring his run prevention in line with his robust fielding-independent numbers.

However, in another sense they were wrong because Morrow's "career year" came with a worse FIP or xFIP than he had in the previous two years. His strikeouts were down to a mere-mortal 7.80 and there was legitimate reason to be suspicious of the breakout that had at one point seemed so inevitable.

Last season Brandon Morrow added to the mystery with a complete abomination of a season where he tossed just over 50 innings with poor peripherals and poor run prevention. There's not much to say about a single start in 2014 that wouldn't be inane overreaction, but Morrow didn't come out an strike out a tonne of guys and put fears about his lost strikeouts to rest.

The pertinent question has become whether Morrow can regain the ability to make batters whiff that made him a unique anomaly from 2010 to 2011, or whether he is the more garden-variety pitcher we saw in 2012 and 2013. ZiPs projects a 9.75 K/9 for Morrow going forward, whereas Steamer puts him at 7.67, so it's fair to say there is some disagreement on the issue.

When comparing his lines from the 2010-2011 era to 2012 on it should be noted that not all of the changes have been for the worse.

Time Period

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2010-2011

325.2

10.53

3.73

0.88

4.62

3.42

3.51

2012-2014

184

7.53

2.93

1.17

3.86

4.13

4.13

The second sample is significantly smaller and less reliable, but it's clear that Morrow has tightened up his command. The ERA gap is also fairly significant here. There is an argument to be made that Morrow has become a better pitcher in recent years, but I don't think I'd buy that argument. Your stance there likely depends on what you think over ERA vs. FIP, and that's a debate for another day.

Whether one believes that Morrow's lost K's are a massive issue, or perhaps a necessary sacrifice in favor of other aspects of his game, it's interesting to see where the missing strikeouts went.

One explanation for this phenomenon that his been offered has been a decrease in velocity. This explanation isn't completely and utterly without merit, but at the same time it is incomplete. The idea that Morrow is pitching with a fundamentally different arsenal is recent years is simply not true as Morrow's fastball has dropped by less than 0.5 mph between the two time periods according to Brooks Baseball.

Between 2010 and 2011 Morrow registered 91.8% of his strikeouts via the fastball or slider, and he has similarly got 93.9% of his K's from the two pitches since 2012 making them an excellent place to start in the search for the missing whiffs. Although the difference in velocity is negligible, it doesn't mean that there isn't a change in usage and effectiveness.

We begin by looking at Morrow's slider, as it has traditionally been his out pitch. Specifically focusing on sliders in two-strike counts gives us a sense of whether its effectiveness in ringing up batters has changed. The following chart compares Morrow's slider during the two time periods in question.

Time Period

Two Strike Swing%

Two Strike Whiff%

Two Strike in Play%

2010-2011

65.92%

25.48%

18.31%

2012-2014

65.35%

24.01%

21.88%

The difference here is minimal, bordering on completely irrelevant. Hitters are putting Morrow's slider in play a little bit more often in recent seasons and whiffing a tiny bit less, but it's nothing to write home about.

If the problem isn't with his slider, Morrow is probably failing to put hitters away with the fastball.

Time Period

Two Strike Swing%

Two Strike Whiff%

Two Strike in Play%

2010-2011

61.21%

13.85%

19.00%

2012-2014

63.85%

7.87%

27.11%

Despite almost having almost identical fastball velocity during these two sections of his career, Morrow has been far, far worse at generating strikeouts with the heater in the last couple of seasons.

A look at the location of Morrow's fastball whiffs with two strikes paint a clearer picture. This is what Morrow's ability to get whiffs on the fastball with two strikes looked like when he was leading the league in K/9:

This is what it has looked like since 2012:

In previous years Morrow was able to climb the ladder with his fastball to get strikeouts, but he has not done so of late. Remarkably, he got batters to whiff high in the strike zone, which is often a very unwise place to leave a fastball.

More recently, he has struggled to do so. While the sample size is indeed smaller, it appears that Morrow has thrown high fastballs less often with two strikes as well. The first sample is significantly less than twice as large as the second, but there are over three times as many two-strike fastballs thrown above the midpoint of the strike zone by Morrow in 2010 and 2011.

When this information is presented numerically, it looks like this:

Time Period

Two-Strike Fastballs "High"

Whiffs

Whiff%

2010-2011

369

69

18.9%

2012-2012

115

16

13.9%

Morrow's high heat is diminished in terms of both quantity and effectiveness.

Exactly why this is the case remains something of a mystery. Morrow hasn't lost much in the way of velocity and his slider continues to be effective so it's not as if batters are keying on the fastball because the rest of the repertoire is faltering.

What we do know is that for Brandon Morrow to be truly elite at striking out hitters he needs to be able to do it with both the fastball and the slider. For the time being it doesn't seem like he is getting the whiffs he needs from his fastball. This may or may not be a solvable problem.

Morrow's high heat is diminished in terms of both quantity and effectiveness.

On one hand his velocity hasn't declined much at all, leaving one to believe that he's throwing basically the same fastball. On the other hand, the results have been undeniably different.

There can be no definitive conclusion, except for the obvious and frustrating one, which is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It seems unlikely that Morrow touches 10 K/9 again, but at the same time he can probably do better than the 7.53 he's produced since the 2012 season opened. That is a pretty significant range, but as the season wears on the Blue Jays will hopefully become more sure of what they have in Brandon Morrow.

If he stays healthy that is.

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