Welcome Back, Brandon Morrow

I’m not supposed to embed pictures or videos above the fold. (We have a fold.) So I’m going to get right to it, inserting an early page break so I can show you a clip from last night. Turns out Wednesday was Brandon Morrow’s 33rd birthday! He was asked by the Dodgers to handle the seventh inning of what would turn into a dramatic come-from-behind victory. Morrow set the Twins down 1-2-3. Below, a pitch that he threw to Brian Dozier.

How many of you realized Brandon Morrow was throwing 100 miles per hour in the major leagues? How many of you realized Brandon Morrow was in the major leagues?

The interesting part of the offseason usually wraps up around the middle of January. Sometimes there are late trades, or late-signing impact free agents, but by January’s final week or so, teams have a good idea how they’re going to look in spring training. It was at that time last winter the Dodgers gave Brandon Morrow a minor-league contract. It was one of several minor-league contracts. Every team brings in a whole lot of veterans on minor-league contracts, and most of them don’t turn into anything. Expectations are low, and players are desperate just to get a chance.

For Morrow, it’s been a long and challenging road. I don’t know how much detail I need to get into, because I think his story is fairly familiar, but he dealt with early mismanagement, and later health problems. Morrow became one of those roll-of-the-dice pitchers who everyone thought could be electric, if only he could stay healthy, which he didn’t. You know the guys. A few are always out there. Josh Johnson was a popular one. Morrow was another. He had biceps tendinitis in 2009. Forearm inflammation in 2011. An oblique strain in 2012. Nerve entrapment in 2013. A torn tendon sheath in 2014. In 2015, Morrow struggled with a shoulder impingement. Then he contracted valley fever.

Valley fever will get you, and it’ll get you for a while. Headed into 2016, Morrow couldn’t have a normal offseason, and then even during 2016, he didn’t have his full strength, having lost too much weight. Morrow threw 16 innings with the Padres, but he struck out just eight batters. His fastball was hanging around 95, but there wasn’t much more to it. Even in the minors, he got hit. For Morrow, it was another rough season, and he couldn’t have seen too many promising prospects.

The Dodgers saw *something.* Maybe it was just Morrow’s track record. Maybe it was that, in Morrow’s final 2016 appearance, his fastball averaged nearly 98. You don’t need much of a reason to give a guy a shot. Morrow had the offseason he wanted to have, and he’s regained all of his strength. He doesn’t, at least for now, feel any discomfort anywhere in his body. And so almost out of nowhere, Morrow is throwing like he did as a draft pick.

Morrow’s fastball has been holding at 98, sometimes brushing the triple digits. For perspective, I created the following plot. In here you’ll see average fastball velocities for everyone with at least 10 innings as a starter or as a reliever in both 2016 and 2017. Morrow is the point highlighted in yellow. I paired pitchers who remained in the same role, so as not to, say, hurt pitchers who’ve shifted into the rotation.

Morrow’s average fastball is up 2.7 miles per hour. That’s the biggest increase in the major leagues this season, and it would count as the 13th-biggest increase over the past decade. Brent Suter is up 2.6 miles per hour, to 86.9. Morrow is up 2.7 miles per hour, to 97.8. Lately, he’s been throwing even harder than that. You could ask Dozier about that if you wanted to.

His arm strength having returned, Morrow looks electric again. But this goes beyond just his raw stuff. Morrow has also made progress elsewhere — as he’s gotten older, he’s matured into something of an extreme thrower of strikes.

This used to be almost impossible to imagine. When Morrow was a rookie, he fell short of throwing 60% strikes. So far this season he’s been throwing 70% strikes. He owns one of the very highest strike rates in the major leagues, around names like Kenley Jansen and Addison Reed. Morrow has gone from being a middling strike-thrower to being a guy who’s always ahead, and although this improvement might’ve begun a year or two ago, now his stuff is better as well. Morrow has cleaned up his delivery, he’s changed his approach, and he’s narrowed to fastballs, sliders, and cutters.

Gone is the old splitter. Gone, too, is the curveball. The cutter seemed to come into being last season, and now Morrow works almost exclusively hard. His repertoire more or less mirrors that of Roberto Osuna, who’s also now always ahead. I should mention that Morrow has baseball’s third-highest rate of first-pitch strikes. He’s at 73%, with a career average that’s lower by 17 points. He throws his slider low, he throws his cutter in the middle, and he throws his fastball high. Morrow’s average fastball height is one of the highest around, which is surely something the Dodgers have encouraged. Morrow hasn’t been afraid to work upstairs, and he knows he has pitches he can control lower down. Morrow didn’t invent the high fastball as a weapon, but there’s a reason so many pitchers find it so appealing.

Because Morrow’s sample is small, you probably shouldn’t make too much of this, but among relievers, only Craig Kimbrel has a lower FIP-. The name right after Morrow is…Osuna, which is fitting. Morrow has generated four pop-ups without yet coughing up a dinger, and while someone will get him one of these days, it’s never going to come easy, not as long as Morrow is throwing like this. It’s not easy for a hitter to be behind, and it’s not easy when you’re facing big velocity and three different eye levels. This is the best Brandon Morrow anyone’s seen in a while. Definitely the Morrow most under control.

At the end of the day, he’s a 33-year-old non-closer with a long history of getting hurt. The Dodgers are likely to need a little extra time to be convinced, and Morrow is one of a few options within a deep Dodger bullpen. He’ll forever be difficult to trust, which I suppose is one of the things that helps him fit in with the staff he belongs to. I don’t know exactly how much Brandon Morrow has left to give, but this is why players get chances. This is why teams are reluctant to ever give up on a big arm. Brandon Morrow wasn’t too old to get healthy, and he wasn’t too old to learn to throw strikes. The Dodgers didn’t need the help, but they’re happy to let this story unfold.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Great to see Morrow’s hard work pay off finally. It’ll be interesting to see what he gets on the market as a FA this coming off-season. Even if he’s stuck with “prove it” offers, at least it’ll be ones with a tidy sum given to him.