Pete Walker on Morrow: "Visions of a Front-End Starter"

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

It's impossible to draw conclusions about a pitcher after two starts, but that doesn't mean the data should be ignored. The stats are real and, at the end of the day, they count just as much as any other outing by season's end. We'll learn more about a pitcher, in this case Toronto's Brandon Morrow, as the season progresses, but there's nothing wrong with exploring what the early returns have been.

Morrow had a mediocre start in his first outing against the Rays and followed it up with a very strong one against the Astros. In the Tampa Bay start, Morrow allowed four runs on seven hits over five frames and induced just two swings and misses. His line vs. Houston, meanwhile, was skewed by a three-run sixth inning but he mowed down Astros hitters with ease before stumbling in his last frame. The right-hander -- who generated plenty of whiffs against Houston with 19 swinging strikes -- walked one, punched out nine, consistently pumped out heaters of 95-plus mph and threw his slider for strikes.

It was a positive sign for a pitcher who, due to inconsistencies and injuries, remains a question mark in the Blue Jays' rotation. Morrow is seen by many as a potential x-factor for Toronto because of his front-end stuff and ability to churn out outings like he did against Houston.

Limited to just 54 1/3 innings last season, after posting a career-best 2.96 ERA over an abbreviated 2012 year, Morrow hasn't shown the Blue Jays much recently. What Morrow showed the club Wednesday, however, was his best start since Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker took over the position last season.

"There's no doubt," Walker said. "We have looked at video of him in the past and that's some of the stuff that we saw. Overpowering fastball -- mid-to-high 90s -- with excellent command of his slider and that was probably the best splitter I have ever seen him throw. It was a very aggressive mindset.

"He was in the zone and I think it comes down to him trusting his stuff. Knowing he has the velocity on his fastball makes it easier for him to let it go and trust it."

Yes, it was the Astros, but let's not dismiss the fact that this is a club which entered Friday ranking second in the American League with 14 homers, avoided a sweep against the Blue Jays after scoring five runs off Toronto's de facto No. 1 starter R.A. Dickey, and has clobbered both Jered Weaver and C.C. Sabathia this season. The Dickey-Sabathia-Weaver trio is more name than substance at this point in their careers but they were still average-to-above-average big-league starters in 2013. Would the Houston start have opened more eyes if it was against one of the AL's more potent linueps? Sure, but Morrow shouldn't be discredited for the competition he faced when he looked as good as he did.

Since becoming a Blue Jay, Morrow has consistently thrown more pitches in the zone and lowered his walk rate each year. Against Houston, he threw 60 of his 86 pitches for strikes, including 17 of 19 sliders, which he generated eight swings and misses off.

Don't be fooled by Morrow's 5.73 ERA, either -- he has pitched better than that number indicates. Also, ERA is a poor indicator of success over small workloads.

After two starts, Morrow has struck out 13, walked two and allowed one homer over 11 innings. It is those numbers that help explain his strong 2.61 FIP -- a defense-independent stat that focuses on the true things a pitcher has control over (homers, walks, strikeouts).

"Anytime you have a strikeout-to-walk ratio like that it's a great sign," Walker said. "If he's not walking guys and forcing contact with his stuff and getting the swing and miss more, those are tremendous signs and very encouraging for his future outings."

Morrow battled a nerve issue in his forearm last season that ended his campaign prematurely, so the fact that he's still throwing gas is promising. He was hitting 98 mph against Houston and his average four-seam fastball velocity of 95.2 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, is the fastest it has been since 2009. The 29-year-old is still throwing a hard slider that touched 90 mph Wednesday, and has so far used his splitter more so than usual.

If Morrow keeps turning to the splitter more -- a pitch that should bottom out when approaching the plate -- it could help him partially maintain his robust groundball rate. Entering weekend play, Morrow's GB% of 61.3 ranks fifth among major league starters, according to Fangraphs, and is much higher than his career mark of 38.1%. History suggests Morrow's groundball rate is due to plummet in the coming starts, but Walker hopes that the splitter, in part, will allow him to continue the early trend.

"I thought the splitter [against Houston] was exceptional and he generated weak contact off the pitch," Walker said. "For the most part, he has been finishing his pitches down in the zone. When they are swinging, they are going to top the ball and keep it down on the ground, which is great. He's not going to have that velocity every night, but if he stays with the aggressive mindset and keeps the ball down in the zone, those are good signs."

Morrow is a power arm who has always possessed top-line stuff. Every year, however, the question is whether that designation will change and he'll actually possess the title of a top-of-the-rotation arm. This is something the Blue Jays think about, too.

"Anytime you watch him throw like he did against Houston you have visions of a front-end starter," Walker said.

Morrow has more upside than any Blue Jays starter and if can put together more outings like he did against the Astros, it will go a long way for Toronto, a team lacking certainty in its rotation.

h/t Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for stats