It's early. It's really early. Then again, there's not much else to talk about so let's talk about Brandon Morrow's incredible improvement so far in 2008. Subjectively we've seen a much more effective breaking pitch so far this season along with, especially recently, improved velocity. But we here at Lookout Landing LLC. do not care much for subjectivity. We like warm nurturing numbers to surround us in their soothing glow so let us get some of them.
First off, that improved velocity. Is it real? Yes. In 2007, 61 of Morrow's 1,185 pitches exceeded 98 miles per hour according to pF/X. So far in 2008, 27 of 282 have done the same, an increase of 86%. Morrow's average fastball velocity has also risen a tick to 96.1 mph, up from 95.9 last year. Staying with the fastball, let's take a look at his location first; 2007 is on the left, 2008 on the right.
Each octagon represents a pitch location. The "brighter" the pixel, the more pitches crossed that spot. The order goes: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red.
It's a bit hard to compare because we are dealing with such disparate sample sizes to date, but the plot on the right is more compact radially than the one on the left. The other good you can somewhat squeeze out of this comparison is the better grouping toward the corners of the strike zones in 2008. Notably compare the upper left corner between the two years. To get a clearer picture of what's been done with Morrow's fastball, here is a results table at which to gander:
In 2007, batters watched 54.8% of Morrow's fastballs go by of which 71% were called a ball. Thus far in 2008, batters are only taking 45.3% of fastballs and those taken are called a ball 69% of the time. It's a 9.5% drop in taken fastballs which is pretty significant.
Moving on to non fastballs, lets again start with location first. Ignore those really wide plots on the far left and right, those were intentional balls that got caught in the algorithm.
What jumps out to me is that in 2007 the majority of Morrow's offspeed pitches were elevated in the zone. That's generally not a good place to throw such offerings unless they're of good quality and have sufficient deception or movement to fool the batter. Remember, a changeup is only effective because you trick the batter into thinking it's a fastball. Otherwise, it's just a really sucky batting practice fastball.
This year to date the overall positioning of Morrow's offspeed offerings is much lower with very few at all reaching above or beyond the upper third of the strike zone. Is it a coincidence then that among the much improved control Morrow has also seen a splurge in groundballs in 2008? In 2007, just 32.4% of batted balls were classified as grounders by MLB. That's not good for a starting pitcher, but for a reliever with strikeout stuff that's pretty typical. You usually have to pitch up in the zone to get strikeouts on fastballs because most of your swinging strikes will come on high heat that batters cannot catch up to. The side effect of that is more flyballs (and more popups).
But so far in 2008, Morrow has seen a groundball percentage of 48.6%, a healthy number even for a starting pitcher. For reference, bad 2008 version Felix only has a groundball rate of 47.1%. Lets turn again to a result table.
Keep in mind we're dealing with even more of a small sample here for 2008, but an early trend is pretty clear, batters are only taking 3% more often on offspeed pitches, but in 2008, 39.2% of those are being called a strike compared to just 25.5% last year. The uptick in swinging strikes is helpful too because one concern is that once batters notice the trend of improved control, they might start swinging more often at the offspeed pitches, and if they are hittable pitches then Morrow could be back in trouble but this time from line drives rather than from walks. That's why watching the amount of missed bats on non fastballs will be one of several key indicators on Morrow's growth.
Brandon Morrow has improved in nearly every respect in 2008. His walks are down, his strikeouts are up (and both are backed by solid core numbers) and his groundballs are up. He's easily one of the five best pitchers in the organization at the moment. He was drafted as a starter. It's beyond time to give him a shot at starting. Hopefully this organization will soon realize that 2008 is a lost cause in terms of a playoff appearance. But it can be salvaged in part by taking steps forward for the future. Testing Brandon Morrow in the rotation is such a step.