Just How Much Awesome Will Brandon Morrow Be For the Cubs

It looks like the Cubs have signed Brandon Morrow for two years and something like $22 million, as Jeff Passan and Jon Heyman are reporting. Right now, he’ll slot in as their fourth closer in four years. He should be excellent, considering how superlative his stuff was out of the pen last year, and really for most of his career. But there’s that other question that has dogged him for most of his career, too: just how healthy will he be?

Since he moved to the bullpen full time in 2016, Morrow has seen his fastball take on new life. While the average starter-turned-reliever puts on somewhere between a mile per hour and two, the former Dodger saw his fastball put on over three ticks since 2015 and 2017. By velocity, his 97.7 mph four-seamer was 17th-fastest in the big leagues last year.

His slider remained unchanged in velocity, but recovered the same effectiveness it had when he was a starter earlier in his career. His 24% whiff rate on the pitch was the best since 2010, which was not coincidentally the last year his slider had as much drop as it did last year.

What might have really made the most difference for Morrow, in terms of outcomes, was bringing back an old pitch.

“When I re-added the cutter, and went to the windup again, things really started clicking,” Morrow said of his time in the minor leagues with the Dodgers early last season. He’d put the cutter away for a while, but not because of injury concerns.

“I’ve had a handful of pitches I’ve worked with the past, but the reason I took those away is I knew I needed to come in and show swing-and-miss stuff,” the reliever told me during a World Series media event. “You can’t come in and ‘get outs’ on a minor league deal, you have strike guys out. That’s just the way it is, if you want to be in a major league bullpen.”

He got those swinging strikes thanks to the velocity — he was 18th last year among relievers with more than 40 innings in that regard. But he also had the best year of his life against lefties, backed by the best strikeout minus walk rate of his career against southpaws, and that was probably thanks to the cutter. But the cutter comes with some risk, and not only of the injury variety: others have pointed out the slider and cutter can blend together.

“Not in my head,” the pitcher said. “But maybe out of my hand. I threw one to Jason Heyward while we were at home that was 94 but had slider action. That was a cutter grip and cutter everything, but that’s a happy accident. That’s what happens sometimes to the cutter when it’s down.”

That pitch was nasty. So Morrow should be awesome with his high-velocity, swing-and-miss arsenal. But he’s also been injured often, and has missed significant portions of his career to injuries to his arm, shoulder, fingers, and obliques. He got Valley Fever once on the way back from Tommy John and pointed to that as a bottom point.

And that was before the Dodgers used him harder than any other reliever has been used since 2008. By Mike Sonne’s Fatigue Units, which track days of rest and pitches, Morrow’s playoff run was the most taxing since we’ve been able to track the stat. And he wasn’t alone on the Dodgers in that sort of aggressive usage born of pulling the starter early.

But, if you add previous injury risk to that sort of usage, it seems like an iffy proposition. Here are the top 20 reliever postseasons by Fatigue Units and then how many innings the reliever threw the next year, described as a percentage of their previous career high.

Most Taxing Reliever Postseasons
Name Season Appearances Ave Rest Back to Back Pitch Count IP% Year+1 Fatigue Units
Brandon Morrow 2017 13 2.1 5 173 3.8
Aroldis Chapman 2016 13 2.2 4 273 71% 3.7
Andrew Miller 2016 10 3.0 2 305 84% 3.7
J.P. Howell 2008 12 2.3 3 220 74% 3.6
Kelvin Herrera 2014 11 2.9 2 248 83% 3.6
Ryan Madson 2008 11 2.5 4 165 94% 3.6
Mariano Rivera 2009 12 2.6 2 261 74% 3.5
Ryan Madson 2009 12 2.5 4 211 64% 3.4
Jeurys Familia 2015 12 2.1 5 187 100% 3.3
Koji Uehara 2013 13 2.1 4 169 87% 3.3
Phil Coke 2012 10 2.3 3 167 64% 3.2
Fernando Salas 2011 11 2.5 3 222 78% 3.2
Wade Davis 2014 12 2.6 3 198 95% 3.0
Neftali Feliz 2011 11 2.6 2 203 62% 2.9
Octavio Dotel 2011 12 2.5 3 147 87% 2.9
Kelvin Herrera 2015 11 2.4 3 210 85% 2.9
Jason Motte 2011 12 2.4 3 150 100% 2.8
Grant Balfour 2008 10 2.8 2 195 100% 2.8
Bryan Shaw 2016 11 2.7 3 195 100% 2.7
Santiago Casilla 2012 11 2.2 4 150 79% 2.7
Brian Wilson 2010 10 2.7 3 192 74% 2.6
SOURCE: Mike Sonne
Fatigue Units described in depth here.

Many of these pitchers encountered injury issues shortly after these postseason runs. As a group, they averaged 83% of their previous career high in innings the next season, with only one (Jason Motte) establishing a new career high the year after a postseason run this stressful.

That sort of fallback might not be such a big deal with a reliever that has a history of good work, maybe. But Morrow’s career high as a reliever came last year, when he threw 63.2 innings across two levels.

Would the Cubs be cool with 100 innings spread out over the next two seasons? Probably, if he’s awesome in those innings, and if those innings come at the right times. The shortness of the deal gives them cover if he does get hurt a lot, and the good money pleases the player. This risk is baked in, but also worth addressing. What can you do about it, in the end? Treat the pitcher right, and let him let it eat.

“I just try to throw hard and let it do what it’s going to do,” Morrow said, and now Cubs and their fans get to watch him be awesome, for an undetermined about of time. It’s not like any of us know how much time we have.

We hoped you liked reading Just How Much Awesome Will Brandon Morrow Be For the Cubs by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Dr Hocker
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Dr Hocker

Hey Eno–did you have to scurry up to your hotel room to blast this out quick? Nice work!