More polished and back in his comfort zone, Brandon Morrow appears to have turned a corner. The 26-year-old right-hander made major strides in his first year in Toronto, and his first as a full-time starter, winning 10 games and overpowering American League hitters to the tune of 10.95 strikeouts per nine innings. Drafted fifth overall by the Mariners in 2006, he threw just 16 minor league innings before jumping to the big leagues and a role out of the Seattle bullpen. Morrow came to the Blue Jays last winter in exchange for Brandon League and Johermyn Chavez.
David Laurila: You were drafted in 2006. What were your expectations when you signed?
Brandon Morrow: I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess just to start my baseball career and start traveling around in the minor leagues. I knew pretty much that I was going to the Rookie League right away, so I moved down to Arizona and started my career down there.
DL: Are you surprised that you spent as little time in the minors as you did?
BM: Yeah. I don’t think I expected to make it in my first spring training. You know, I didn’t think it would be a real long path—I didn’t think it would take three, four, five years—but I didn’t expect to be in the big leagues that soon.
DL: In retrospect, were you ready?
BM: I think I was ready to pitch up here, and to have some success, but I don’t think I was ready to really have a lot of consistent success. I think I could overpower hitters at times, and get them out with my stuff, but that was pretty much it. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of, quote unquote, “pitching,” as they say.
DL: Do you feel that you are now?
BM: Yeah, I think my game has changed a lot. I throw twice as many off-speed pitches, or more, than I did earlier in my career. It’s not just all four-seam fastballs as hard as I can, trying to throw it by the guy, and then break off a good breaking ball or something. It’s pitching and setting guys up, moving in, moving out, up, down, back and forth with speed. I’ve definitely learned a lot in my three-and-a-half years.
I think moving back to starting has really made me expand my repertoire. As a reliever, I didn’t throw any curveballs or changeups, it was all fastball-slider. Working on those other pitches just adds that extra dimension to your game. I kind of really didn’t have the “slow dimension.” I didn’t really put guys off of fastballs with good changeups, or anything like that, or mess up their timing with the curveball here and there. It was pretty much hard, hard, hard the whole time.
DL: Why were you moved into the bullpen when you got to the big leagues?
BM: That’s where they needed me right away. I think it was a perfect-storm situation that spring training. They didn’t really know who was going to set up J.J. Putz. Mark Lowe had elbow surgery the year before and I think they really saw a lot of him in me, or me in him, or whatever. The things that he was doing the year before, they saw … they thought that I could be doing a lot of those things, that year, while he was out. They always told me that in the long-term the plan was to move me into the rotation, and we eventually did that a little bit.
DL: How did the bullpen experience impact you?
BM: Major-league experience is invaluable, just being comfortable out there. It takes a while just to slow the game down and be able to approach it as an everyday thing, which helps you stay consistent instead of when you come up and your eyes are big as a rookie, and things kind of speed up and tend to go a mile a minute. Especially when you’re at the end of the game and there are a couple guys on, and the lead is just one run.
DL: Developmentally, would having spent more time in the minors, as a starter, benefited you more than relieving in the big leagues?
BM: Yeah, I think so, because over the last year—this season and back to September of last season—my progression as a pitcher has really taken off. That’s when I started throwing a lot more off-speed pitches, when I went back to Triple-A last year to stretch out my innings. I incorporated a curveball and really worked on my changeup, and this year I’ve worked on slowing down that curveball even more and maybe taking some more off the changeup and really mixing up speeds. That’s the kind of thing you learn when you’re starting, when you’ve got to throw those six, seven, eight innings every time out and you need to come up with other ways to get guys out.
DL: What was your reaction to coming to Toronto?
BM: Surprised at first. Maybe some people expect to be traded, but I wasn’t really in that kind of situation where you expect to be traded. So I was surprised at first, and then once I talked to Alex Anthopoulos and he told me that I would be given every shot to be in the rotation … you know, that’s really what I wanted. He said that, rain or shine, regardless what happens in spring training, I would be in the starting rotation somewhere. That’s whether it was in the big leagues, which is the way it worked out, or if I hadn’t pitched well in spring training, then in Triple-A. It really helps to kind of take the pressure off, thinking about where you’re going to be pitching, what your role is going to be. It was nice to have that kind of assurance.
DL: Pitching-wise, are there any philosophical differences between the two organizations?
BM: Well, I haven’t really went through either organization’s minor league system. When I was in Triple-A with the Mariners, I was treated like a big league player that just happened to be down there to stretch out his innings. I really couldn’t tell you about either team’s organizational pitching philosophy. I could tell you what we try to do as a major league club, which is a lot of the same things, like keeping the ball down and really just executing quality pitches. As long as you’re doing that, that’s kind of the key.
DL: Would you define yourself as a power pitcher?
BM: Yeah, undoubtedly. You know, I throw mostly fastball-slider, with my slider at 87-89 and my fastball usually between 91-97. I rely on the other stuff maybe to steal a strike here or there, or to throw those off-speed pitches in counts where they may be looking for a fastball so I’ll throw a changeup up there. But mostly I’m just going after guys with a lot of fastballs and a lot of hard sliders. Most of my outs are either strikeouts or, oddly, a lot of fly balls.
DL: What is the biggest difference between last year, and this year, for you as a pitcher?
BM: I think my ability to command my fastball is better, and my ability to command my breaking pitches, I think. That is probably the key to most pitchers’ success—fastball command. I mean, you watch guys that have great years and they pretty much put their fastball where they need to and then have pretty good command of at least one off-speed pitch with the ability to throw a couple more.
DL: What’s the best game you’ve pitched in the big leagues?
BM: It’s got to be my one-hitter against Tampa this year with the 17 strikeouts. I took a no-hitter seven-and-two-thirds against New York; that was in my first [big-league] start. I had eight strikeouts in that one, and three walks, but the game against Tampa was two walks, one hit, and 17 strikeouts, so that was quite a bit more dominant.
DL: Any final thoughts?
BM: Most people ask me about my diabetes. I did a lot with that in Seattle with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and in Toronto with the same, JDRF. I try to do a lot with them, and they’ve asked me to do some things over the years, so that’s always something that I enjoy doing throughout the season.