Is Morrow Saving His Velocity For Late In Games?

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

There was some Twitter talk regarding Brandon Morrow’s fastball speed in the early stages of Wednesday’s outing against the Orioles. It didn't carry quite the hysteria that Josh Johnson’s lack of velocity against the Tigers did during his second start of the year, which turned out to be a whole lot of nothing, but there seemed to be some legitimate concern.

Morrow was throwing a lot of low-90s heaters early, but perhaps this is simply a strategy of his. Maybe he’s trying to preserve energy and is seeing what he can get away with at the start of the game because he knows he has more in the tank he can reach back for, if needed, as the contest progresses?

That’s just a theory of mine, but his speed has gradually increased the deeper he goes in each of his last three starts. It was really pronounced Morrow’s last outing against the Yankees and again on Wednesday vs. the Orioles.

Below are charts (courtesy Brooks Baseball) of Morrow’s pitch speed by inning over his last three outings, beginning with his start against Kansas City.

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These charts illustrate that Morrow can hit 95 mph when needed, he’s just not doing it from start to finish, which is clearly not an easy thing to do.

Secondly, the thing that may appear alarming to some is that Morrow is not throwing as hard as he was during his first start of the season against Cleveland. He was bringing it, with his four-seam fastball averaging 96-plus mph and maxing out at 99.55 – both figures which are easily season highs.

But … he only hit 99 once that game. It was his first start of the season, in front of the home crowd, in a weather-controlled environment. In other words, he was jacked up and pitching in an ideal location for him to reach his maximum velocity. We were never going to see him sustain that level of velocity this year.

His average fastball has been south of 95 mph since the 2010 season. That’s nothing to sneeze at, it’s still well-above average, but the data – over a large sample – is telling, and coincides with his move to the rotation.

Simply put, he was throwing harder in shorter stints as a reliever. Among pitchers who threw at least 90 innings last season, Stephen Strasburg, David Price and Jeff Samardzija were the only ones who had an average fastball of 95+.

Morrow’s average four-seam fastball speed since 2010, his first year with Toronto:

2010: 94.07

2011: 94.57

2012: 93.79

2013: 93.80

Average four-seam fastball this season by game:

April 3, Indians: 96.24; Max: 99.55

April 9, Tigers: 93.94; Max: 96.69

April 14, Royals: 92.88; Max: 96.47

April 19, Yankees: 93.30; Max: 97.50

April 24, Orioles: 93.24; Max: 95.74

As the data shows, there’s nothing to worry about. Also, his velocity isn’t trending south, either.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's focus on Wednesday's start.

April 24 at Baltimore

Morrow threw well … for the most part. He had a bad first inning and struggled against the last two batters he faced in the seventh. In between that, he didn’t allow a hit, upped his velocity – as the chart above shows – and threw some nice offspeed in both his slider and splitter. Once again, he barely went to his curveball and primarily only used the splitter vs. lefties, but this is what he has been doing all year.

The right-hander looked really strong from the fourth through sixth, racking up three of his four punchouts and six of his 11 swinging strikes – it was Morrow’s first start that he induced double-digit swinging strikes since his season debut.

I was most impressed with one at-bat in particular. Ahead, 1-2, to Chris Davis, Morrow placed his splitter in a perfect spot. No one on, way up in the count, he gave him nothing. The pitch was unhittable.

davisk

That’s what you want to do in that situation, especially against a power guy who wasn’t hitting you all game. Morrow struck out Davis three times.

Manager John Gibbons sent Morrow back out for the seventh and he promptly retired the leadoff batter before getting ahead of Nolan Reimold, 0-2. Morrow then threw four straight balls to Reimold, starting with a fastball high and inside.

He proceeded to fall behind, 2-0, to Ryan Flaherty, who ended up hitting a 2-2 fastball to right field for an RBI double, which chased Morrow from the contest. Flaherty ended up scoring, giving Morrow a final line which read: 6 1/3 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, and 63 of a season-high 112 pitches for strikes. Morrow received a no-decision in the Blue Jays’ 6-5 extra-inning win.

I didn’t mind Gibbons leaving Morrow in. He was really finding a groove until falling apart at the finish line. I'd let Morrow work through that, too, especially with a three-run lead.

Notes:

Pouring over some data, a few things stood out to me. Keep in mind, it’s only after five starts.

  • Morrow is throwing the fewest first-pitch strikes of his career at 49.2 percent and only started off counts with a strike to nine of the 26 Orioles batters he faced. Not good.

  • The 28-year-old has the lowest-groundball rate of his career at 32.6 percent. Morrow was at 41.1 last season, a career-high mark, and 37.5 for his career. He induced six groundouts vs. Baltimore and has recorded anywhere from four-to-eight outs on the ground over his five starts this season.

  • According to FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x data, opponents are making contact on 76.8 percent of Morrow’s pitches they swing at outside the strike zone, which is a rate more than 15 percent higher than any of his previous seasons. It’s among the highest marks in the American League and, in all likelihood, unsustainable. That number will regress closer to his career levels. For some context, the league-average mark from 2007-11 was 64-65 percent.

  • Coming off a 2012 season in which his swing-and-miss percentage of 9 was a career low, Morrow has a mark of 6.9%.

  • h/t Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for stats

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