The top starting pitching performance of 2010 was turned in Sunday by Toronto’s Brandon Morrow, who came this close to throwing the sixth no-hitter of the season. While that may sound strange, given this is the “Year of the Pitcher” and we have seen two perfect games, a near perfecto and three more no-hitters, but Morrow’s 17 strikeout, one hit shutout of the Rays earned the distinction of scoring a 100 on the Bill James Game Score meter. Missing the no-hitter was disappointing, but the strikeout total was quite an accomplishment. (Even though the Rays are the American League's easiest team to whiff, going down on strikes an average of 7.9 times per game.)
Here are the top starts of 2010, based on Game Score:
To put Morrow’s dominance in deeper perspective, only five times since 1991 has a starter hit the 100 mark on the Game Score. Until Sunday, it hadn’t been done since Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004.
Certainly, the topic of pitch counts will be front and center when discussing this start. Morrow threw a career high 137 pitches, shattering his previous high by 21 pitches. According to the data collected by Brooks Baseball, while his velocity seemed to drop as the game progressed, he was still able to dial his fastball a notch or two higher when necessary.
Sunday's game was the exclamation point on what has become a spectacular season for the young Blue Jay starter. A season that seemed highly unlikely as recently as the end of May.
Morrow has been pacing the AL in strikeouts per nine innings for most of the season, but early in this year, walks were killing Morrow. Absolutely killing him. In his first 10 starts of 2010, he walked four or more batters on five occasions. In those starts, he threw 50 innings and walked a total of 32 batters, which works out to a disgustingly high walk rate of 5.8 BB/9. Walks have a tendency to be destructive, and this was especially the case for Morrow. Of the 32 free passes he issued, 15 of them came around to score. While Morrow owned a fantastic 11.7 K/9 rate in these starts, he wasn’t around long enough to realize the benefits – he pitched into the seventh inning just twice in his first ten starts and averaged just 5 IP per start. Such is life when you can't consistently throw strikes.
That seemed to confirm what we knew about the young right hander who was the fifth pick overall in the 2006 draft by the Seattle Mariners: Electric stuff, plus erratic stuff, equaled untapped potential. His first 10 starts seemed to indicate he was in for another frustrating season. Then, he began delivering stronger results and ultimately turned his season around.
Sure, that .390 BABIP in his first 10 starts may point to some bad luck, but you’re not doing yourself any favors by walking almost six batters per nine innings.
Somehow, Morrow turned his season around. What’s the difference?
Would you believe, the answer may lie in Morrow’s catcher?
Since May 31 (start number 11), Morrow has thrown exclusively to Jose Molina. (Seven of Morrow’s first 10 starts came with John Buck behind the plate.) Morrow has spoken about a comfort level he has with Molina behind the plate and how he trusts the catcher to call “a great game.” In an article on the Blue Jays site from June 25, Morrow talked specifics about how Molina has helped him find a rhythm and game plan while on the mound:
"I think when he calls games throwing a lot of offspeed stuff, it kind of helps to keep me dialed back… I'm using my offspeed pitches in the [strike] zone a lot better and everything has kind of come off of that."
A quick check of the Pitch f/x archives shows this to be the case. With Molina behind the dish, Morrow became less dependent on his fastball and began mixing more curves, change-ups and split finger pitches.
We saw the results from this change in approach in the earlier table. Still, it’s useful to see what’s happening in plate appearances. Here are the top five plate appearance outcomes for Morrow in his first 10 starts of the season:
Strikeout – 27.6%
Single – 14.2%
Walk – 13.8%
Flyout – 11.2%
Groundout – 11.2%
A base runner was the second and third most common resolution for Morrow. Not surprising given what we know about his early starts. Now, here are the top five plate appearance outcomes for Morrow in starts since May 31, when Molina took over as his full-time catcher. Be prepared for some improvement:
Strikeout – 27.3%
Groundout – 15.6%
Flyout – 13.3%
Single – 12.7%
Walk – 7.9%
While the Morrow-Molina tandem has been keeping hitters off balance with an array of off speed pitches, they turned their successful formula on its head for Sunday’s start against the Rays. Morrow threw just two curveballs all afternoon and didn’t throw his change-up once. It was the slider the wreaked the most havoc, resulting in a swing and a miss nearly 37% of the time. Of his 17 strikeouts, 10 of them came from Rays hitters flailing at sliders – 4 of them were in the dirt and blocked by Molina. Here are his pitch locations from Sunday from Texas Leaguers.
While Morrow may never match the dominance he exhibited on Sunday in Toronto, this start wasn’t a fluke. He has the ability to strike out at least 10 hitters every time he takes the hill. He's dropped his overall ERA to 4.45 to go along with a 1.36 WHIP. His 3.22 SIERA ranks him 10th among starters and illustrates just how dominant he has been in 2010. We may scoff at the idea of a personal catcher, but in Morrow's case, it's difficult to argue against the results. Entering the weekend, Morrow was owned in less than 30% of all ESPN leagues, despite his obvious improvement since the beginning of June. As bullish as I am on Morrow, his elevated pitch count on Sunday means his next several starts will need to be closely monitored.
Still, that untapped potential? Consider it tapped.