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April 14, 2006
Prospect Interview: Brandon Morrow
What a difference a year makes.
Twelve months ago, University of California righthander Brandon Morrow's sophomore season was already over. In 2005, Morrow was shut down after pitching just 25 innings in ten games, giving up 32 hits and 20 walks with an ERA of 9.36. Hardly the kind of numbers the team expected from a pitcher penciled in as the team's Friday starter (the college equivalent of the ace). "I was terrible," said Morrow, looking back. "I know I let the team down."
This year, Morrow is back in the Friday role, and has been one of the best starting pitchers in college baseball. In ten starts, Morrow is 7-0 with a 1.67 ERA, and in 70 innings, he's allowed just 46 hits (.194 opponents' average), while walking 34 and striking out 76. In a wide-open draft, Morrow is a certain top ten pick, and is in the mix as high as No. 2 overall to Colorado.
As strange as it may sound, Morrow attributes his 2005 struggles to one thing: improved velocity. "I was in the upper 80s in high school, and then the low 90s as a freshman, but when 2005 began, I was suddenly throwing 97 and my body wasn't strong enough for it," said Morrow. "My back muscles couldn't deal with the arm speed, and my front shoulder was dealing with the deceleration as opposed to my back." Because of the strain Morrow was putting on his body, the pain was constant, and before Morrow had an MRI which showed only inflammation, it was a frightening time for the California native. "I was scared--I was sure I had a torn labrum," said Morrow. "The MRI was a big relief."
Morrow spent the second half of the season getting physically stronger. The inflammation subsided, and he was cleared to pitch in the Cape Cod League that summer. Because it's a wood-bat league stocked with the some of the best college talent in the nation, scouts flock to the Cape every year to get a look at the top players available in the draft. As a result, a good or bad season there can play a huge factor in determining where a player begins the next year on a team's draft board. Morrow shined in a closing role for Yarmouth-Dennis, mixing a fastball that touched 99 mph with a devastating splitter. However, his health was still not 100%. "When I was closing, I learned that I could throw multiple days, but not multiple innings," Morrow added.
Morrow's conditioning program continued in the offseason, and his body was finally ready to accommodate his newfound arm speed. Morrow also returned to a starting role. His performance in the Cape already had him projecting as a first-round pick, but on opening night against UC-Irvine, he established himself for the first time as a force to be reckoned with. The final line: 6.1 innings, no hits, one walk, 12 strikeouts. "Even I didn't expect to come out of the chute that quickly," said Morrow in retrospect.
The next weekend, facing off against national powerhouse Long Beach State, Morrow allowed eight hits and four runs over five innings, while striking out just one. While it was Morrow's shortest and least productive start of the year, it may have been the most important, as Morrow learned a valuable lesson. "That start gave me a real scare because they were hitting my fastball," said Morrow. "Other teams saw that and I knew they would start hunting for that pitch." Not only was a change in Morrow's approach in order, but a change in his arsenal was as well.
While Morrow's fastball and splitter both generate plenty of swings and misses, his inconsistent breaking ball had always troubled scouts. "In high school I threw this slurvy thing with my index finger on the seam, but it was loopy," said Morrow. "In college, I wanted a slider--I was told because of the arm slot that it would be my best bet." Morrow never got a feel for the pitch, however. "It just wasn't working for me. I'd try to get around on it, but it would tend to glide through the zone instead of biting though it."
Morrow felt a change was in order, not just for the rest of his season, but for the rest of his career. "I was thinking to myself that I needed a better breaking ball to succeed at the next level," said Morrow. "So I started gripping a curve and working on it with [pitching coach Dan] Hubbs." The curveball came very quickly to Morrow, and it's one of the reasons, beyond his performance, that has elevated Morrow's stock. "It's 1-to-7 without a lot of tilt--more of a hard downer," as Morrow describes it. "I'm throwing it for strikes and people are missing it."
Morrow also continues to work on his changeup, a process that is difficult for most pitchers. "It's definitely the hardest pitch to learn," said Morrow. "I've always gotten good movement on it, and it comes in at about 86-88 mph. I'm working on getting [the velocity] down further and getting more hitters ahead of it. But I like how it runs and dips."
Other than the occasional control problems, the only other concern surrounding Morrow is his diabetes. Diagnosed prior to his senior year in high school, Morrow wears an insulin pump with a catheter, and must check his blood sugar levels between every inning. If it's high, which occasionally happens--"It goes up during stress," explains Morrow--he delivers himself a dose of insulin. If it's low, Morrow keeps a sugar tablet in his back pocket at all times.
With the 2006 draft less then two months away, Morrow says he tries to just keep his focus on his next start. His time in the Cape Cod League also taught him how to ignore the throngs of scouts behind home plate every time Morrow takes the mound. "At this point, when I'm pitching, my eyes never go above the catcher's head," said Morrow. "As for the draft, I think about it occasionally, but I certainly don't dwell on it."
The fact that he's all but guaranteed a seven-figure pay day this summer surely makes that a little bit easier.