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I Threw You Fire; You Threw a Spark: What's Up With Brandon Morrow?

Hi everyone - Hugo here.  Well, yesterday's game turned out fine, but Brandon Morrow isn't filling me with confidence.  Brandon is a key piece moving forward and I thought it made sense to take a look at his body of work as a starter and what's happened in 2011. 

In 300 innings since becoming a starter with the Jays, Morrow has great strikeout numbers (10.7 K/9), fine walk numbers considering his K rate (3.7 BB/9 for a 2.86 K/BB, and a big improvement this season) but only an 87 ERA+.  I don't like the increasing trend towards flyballs (9 fly balls to only 4 on the ground yesterday) - his ratio has gone from about 1.0 GB/FB in 2010 to just .8 in 2011.  The increased reliance on fly ball outs has meant more home runs this season and has hurt his tRA, which was a terrific 3.17 last season but has slumped to over 4 this year.  (btw, tRA is similar to FIP and xFIP but takes into account batted ball types, which FIP and xFIP do not, making it a favourite of mine)  Morrow's fielding independent stats suggest he should be more than capable as a starter, but at some point you'd expect the results to match up.  What gives? 

Morrow can't blame BABIP (.310 in 2011 - in line with what you'd expect from his career numbers and his line drive rate) or bad luck on fly balls (10.4 HF/FB, greater than last season but not out of whack, and his FIP and xFIP, which is the same as FIP but normalizes home run/fly ball rate to league average, are nearly identical).  One possible culprit, which folks have mentioned, is his ability (or lack thereof) to pitch from the stretch.  Brandon didn't really struggle with this in 2010 - his LOB% was 2% lower than league average, which is perhaps a little higher than what you'd expect from a better than average pitcher like Morrow, but hardly cause for alarm.  But 2011 has been a different story.  Brandon has stranded about 10% fewer runners than league average, grossly inflating his ERA.  Moreover, with runners on, hitters have a .287/.357/.502 line against Morrow, while they are hitting just .244/.318/.399 against him overall.   It doesn't appear to be a significant control issue in terms of finding the zone, since his K and BB rates are about the same with runners on and the bases empty.  However, anecdotally, Morrow appears to have some trouble locating from the stretch, and that could be responsible for hitters' higher BABIP and higher home run rates in those situations (or it could be just plain bad luck - notably, Morrow was just as good with runners on as with the bases empty in 2010).  Indeed, Morrow is substantially better at inducing ground balls when the bases are empty, and hitters have been much more likely to hit fly balls when runners are on, suggesting that he perhaps may have trouble keeping the ball down when pitching from the stretch.  That is consistent with what I've observed.  It could also mean that Morrow is pitching for the strikeout more with runners on, leading to more fly balls, but Brandon's K rates don't support that theory.  

I'm actually more concerned by Morrow's increased reliance on just two pitches - in 2011 he has thrown sliders and fastballs about 90% of the time, which isn't exactly keeping hitters guessing.  I do think this is hurting Morrow, and I'd look to his line against lefties for evidence.  Against lefties Morrow's slider isn't an asset and so he has to mix in his other pitches more.  Morrow's line against lefties in 2011 is excellent - they are hitting just .227/.299/.363 against him.  This is particularly interesting to look at in light of his 2010 numbers, where he was mixing up his pitches better and was basically the same against righties and lefties.  So when Morrow mixes his pitches more, he is equally successful against righties and lefties - when he doesn't, he is still successful against lefties (against whom he has no choice but to mix his pitches) but far less successful against righties (.266/.343/.466).   

 My thought is that Brandon should be working on two things to get ready for next season: locating his pitches when pitching from the stretch, and working in his offspeed stuff more against righthanded hitters.  While those pitches haven't really been successful for him this season, I think increased variety would signficantly help his fastball, which has basically been a neutral pitch for him this season, which is significantly worse than you'd expect from a guy with a heater like Brandon's.  Your thoughts?

Today's title from the Crooked Fingers song "You Threw a Spark."