Brandon Morrow‘s evolution from top prospect to breakout candidate to ace has always seemed somewhat inevitable, so it’s not like I’m surprised the Toronto Blue Jays pitcher is making waves through eight starts in 2012. Morrow has long been on the verge of stardom, as he’s proven his ability to miss bats and his predictive stats have long portrayed a pitcher ready to enjoy substantial gains. Hell, the last three Aprils have been nothing more than an excuse for me to try and act cool as I wax poetic about how I know Morrow is actually Roy Halladay and everyone else is stupid. Morrow’s FIP was 3.16 in 2010 and 3.64 in 2011, figures which look much better than their corresponding ERAs of 4.49 and 4.72. Morrow’s baseball card stats are a lot more visually appealing early on in 2012, but does that mean he’s a different pitcher?
Morrow only made 15 starts over his first three seasons of partial work (2007-2009), and it’s obvious he’s a more refined beast now. Since 2010 and 2011 represent Morrow’s formative years, and also the seasons in which he’d already gotten his feet wet first, it seems fair to judge what he’s doing now only against his work over this time period to determine if he’s more awesome in his present day state. According to FanGraphs, Morrow was worth 3.7 WAR and 3.4 WAR in each of the last two seasons. Comparing his early returns in 2012 to his performance in the previous two seasons, it’s hard to make a strong case that he’s made huge strides.
Since his ascent to official starter material, Morrow has shown he has a plus fastball, slider, and changeup. All three pitches grade out as above-average, and as a result he posted a strikeout rate of 10.5/9 from 2010-2011. Despite his ability to make hitters look like Nicholas Cage trying not to twitch, Morrow has also always killed himself a bit with walks, as he averaged 3.7 BB/9 over the same time period. Morrow has actually had less success in racking up the strikeout so far in 2012 (7.86 K/9), but he’s shown added control (2.73 BB/9). While Morrow wasn’t any better at not missing the zone in the second half of 2011 than he was in the first, it’s worth noting he’s been trimming his walk rate each season of his career. If he cuts another half-walk per nine over the course of a full season, we’re looking at a really big step forward.
Morrow’s indicators seem pretty consistent, though. His 2012 FIP is 3.86, a figure that belies his 2.22 ERA and lies neatly beside what he’s done the last two seasons. And let’s face it; it’s that ERA that’s getting his starts highlighted on “SportsCenter” and his name plastered all over publications that don’t have “Canada” or “Maple” in their titles. Other than the improved walk rate, the big difference in Morrow’s outcomes can be found in the balls opponents are hitting. Morrow’s BABIP, which has been average-to-high over the past two seasons, sits at a super-low .221 so far in 2012. He’s also posted a career-low line drive rate (13.2%) and a career-high ground ball rate (44.4%). Morrow’s velocity hasn’t increased, either; it’s actually been just a tick lower.
The bottom line is that Morrow had already developed into a very good starter before this season, and though he may yet bring his game to a new level, there’s no reason to assume the 2012 version is any different than the 2011 version. Morrow was actually undervalued by onlookers for two full seasons; he hasn’t suddenly turned into a legitimate Cy Young candidate before our eyes. Morrow has trimmed his walk rate a bit, which is really the next step to his becoming an ace, but it’s going to take more than a hot dog bun pack’s worth of starts for him to prove he’s one of the truly elite starters in the game. Whether or not he’s contending for hardware at season’s end, Morrow has already laid claim to his spot as one of the better starters in the American League. If he takes the steps necessary to jump into baseball’s current inner circle, that’s just icing on the cake.