The Great Big 2012 Blue Jays Forecast Series, Part 14: Brandon Morrow

By Thom Tsang

With spring training officially just under a month away, we continue with a series of projections on what the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays might look like. Each day (don’t hold me to this), I will profile a 2012 Blue Jays starter, closing with a set of numbers based on my (usually positive) expectations. Today, we’ll look at one of the Blue Jays’ latest multi-year signing, right-hander Brandon Morrow.

Another season, another post projecting Brandon Morrow to break out in the MLB. It’s been like that for years for the Blue Jays righty, and despite a largely ineffective 2011, I just can’t really see a reason to stray away from the common belief that Morrow is just one step away from entering the league’s group of elite pitchers.

To do so would be overlooking the 8 starts he made where he allowed 5 or more earned runs, and putting behind two months and 60+ innings worth of 5+ ERA ball, but hear me out here. By most standards we have of evaluating pitchers performances, Morrow was arguably the best he’s ever been. The 4.72/1.29 ERA/WHIP would suggest otherwise, but that’s simply not the whole story on the 27-year old righty. Morrow’s strikeout rate of 10.19 remained elite, just 2nd among starting pitchers in the MLB last season. He also put together a 3.46 BB/9 rate, the 3rd straight year that his walk rate has been in decline and a number that represents a career-best for Morrow across all levels of pro ball. Using a predominately 2-pitch approach, Morrow held his opponents to a .233 batting average, a 3-year best, and his 1.05 HR/9 rate is basically equivalent to Ricky Romero’s.

When you put it all together, and this is a pitcher who’s skills are mostly trending in the right directions. Morrow made 30 starts, pitching over 170 innings for the first time in his career, is an elite strikeout artist with a K/BB ratio that puts him in the top 40 and an opponent’s BAA that puts him alongside Doc Halladay in the top 25 in the MLB. Hell, if you use WAR as an indicator for performance value at all, Morrow was already a more valuable arm (3.4 WAR) than Blue Jays ace, Ricky Romero (2.9) last season.

So the numbers are all good and well, except where it counts – in games. Morrow could never find the results that should have come with numbers like his, with April and June being his best months – 42.1 innings worth of under 4.00 ERA pitching. There were equivalent moments of absolute mastery (Sep 18 vs NYY: 8IP, 4H, 0ER, 1BB, 8K), contrasted against total meltdowns on the mound (Jun 11 vs BOS: 4.1IP, 10H, 9ER, 3BB, 4K); but how do you reconcile the two? At the end of the season, Morrow had more poor starts than good ones, even if he basically did everything right in terms of making improvements. I could have pointed to a high .342 BABIP as being representative of his in 2010, but the number normalized to .299 last season; there is a strange home/away split that saw Morrow perform poorly at the Rogers Centre (6.31/1.50 ERA/WHIP, .275 BAA), while being in elite form away from home (3.07/.1.07/.193), but that’s a polar opposite to the home/away split he posted in 2010, and doesn’t tell us much. We’ve all watched the starts – is Morrow just an erratic pitcher who is either great or terrible in stretches? Is there a number that might explain Morrow’s woes in 2011?

Maybe there is. Morrow’s strand rate was a low 69% in 2010, and it dipped further yet in 2011. The righty’s 65.5% strand rate last season is one of the lowest in the MLB last season, and the worst in his career, despite an excellent strikeout rate. Perhaps there’s something that changes about Morrow’s game with men on base? Fangraphs’ Steve Slowinski posted an excellent discussion on this topic in January, pointing out some significant changes in Morrow’s BAA and walk rate in high-leverage situations. There’s also the fact that Morrow’s 179.1 season ended with only 1 GIDP all year. It’s the first time in history (at least since numbers were tracked, as far as I can tell), that a starting pitcher with over 130 IP has induced just a single double-play ball all season. Even if Morrow was more of a fly ball pitcher this year (.87 GB/FB) and allowed more line drives than ever (22.4%), it’s a historic feat of bad luck that out of 141 possible situations, Morrow induced just one double play (good for 0.7%, vs a MLB average of 11%).

Some of this might hint at issues with Morrow’s approach in certain game situations. Maybe it’s a bit of bad luck. Maybe it’s a bit of both, leading to another year that started full of high expectations, but ended mostly in disappointment. That doesn’t mean, however, that those expectations can’t be high again. Morrow has been an enigma so far with the Blue Jays – with stuff that is clearly good enough to be front-line starter, yet never having actually put down a significant stretch of starts that goes in line with the improvements he’s made to his arsenal and control. In 2012, he’ll be relied on by the Blue Jays – yet again – to provide a stabilizing factor in the rotation behind Ricky Romero. Morrow certainly isn’t what I’d call a reliable #2 pitcher at this point, but given everything he’s done over the last 2 years, I think we might see him become just that – if not more – in the upcoming season.

I’m leaning more towards the ideal world scenario here, but if he continues to refine his control, I believe Morrow can put up this type of a season:

200IP, 3.50 ERA/1.22 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 3.2 BB/9

Maybe it’s too depressing to think otherwise, but I have to believe that at some point, Morrow’s BAA and the improvement in K/BB will eventually translate to on-field results. There are probably some underlying issues in certain game situations, but I’m thinking things will line up eventually. Brandon Morrow has been better than the game results indicated over two years now, and is still improving as he heads into his prime; we haven’t seen the best of him just yet.

Thanks for those who have left comments in the other posts so far; it’s always good to see some other viewpoints. How many out there are still Morrow believers? What do you think his issues have been over the last season? Is he a servicable #2?


Previous 2012 Blue Jays forecasts:

Part 1: J.P. Arencibia – 510 PA, .255/.315/.450, 26 HR
Part 2: Adam Lind – 600 PA, .260/.320/.445, 26 HR
Part 3: Kelly Johnson – 580 PA, .270/.350/.430, 16 HR, 11 SB
Part 4: Brett Lawrie – 610 PA, .280/.340/.490, 20 HR, 22 SB
Part 5: Yunel Escobar – 605 PA, .285/.365/.405, 10 HR, 5 SB
Part 6: Edwin Encarnacion – 580PA, .270/.330/.465, 23 HR, 6 SB
Part 7: Eric Thames – 300 PA, .270/.315/.455, 8 HR, 3 SB
Part 8: Travis Snider – 300 PA, .265/.315/.450, 9 HR, 5 SB
Part 9: Colby Rasmus – 590 PA, .260/.325/.445, 19 HR, 14 SB
Part 10: Jose Bautista – 650 PA, .295/.415/.595, 40 HR, 11 SB

Part 11: Henderson Alvarez – 150 IP, 4.25 ERA / 1.28 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 1.85 BB/9
Part 12: Brett Cecil – 180 IP, 4.40 ERA / 1.35 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 2.95 BB/9
Part 13: Kyle Drabek – 160 IP, 4.65 ERA/1.45 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 4.3 BB/9

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