In case you haven't been paying attention - and believe me, I wouldn't blame you - the future really gets going in earnest tomorrow night, as Brandon Morrow will make his Major League starting debut at 7:10 against the Yankees. Over 23.1 innings in AAA Morrow fanned 26 while walking 11, but the truth of the matter is that we have little idea what to expect from him going forward, because so rarely has he had to take on an approach even remotely resembling that of a starter. However, we know the future shines a lot brighter with Morrow in the rotation than with Morrow in relief, so with that in mind, tomorrow's a big day.
Chances are, it won't go that well. Which isn't to say that it can't, but to expect anything extraordinary against a solid Yankee lineup would be foolish. Morrow's going to hit his speed bumps, and some of them are going to be pretty ugly. That said, there will be a few things to watch for tomorrow that could portend future success, things that're more important for Morrow right now than box score results. What follows is a brief and potentially incomplete list of those things, in no particular order.
(1) High-90s fastball. No matter how much noise people make about the improvement of Morrow's offspeed stuff, everybody knows his go-to pitch. Straight gas. However, everybody also knows that most pitchers tend to lose a mile or three when they move from relieving to starting, so it'll be interesting to see how Morrow adjusts. There have been encouraging reports out of AAA, but who the hell knows how much we can trust a PCL radar gun. What we do know is that Morrow's swinging strike rate on fastballs at 96+ has been 16%, versus 11% for fastballs under 96, so based on that, this seems like a pretty important issue. If Morrow retains the ability to reach back for something 97-99 when he needs to, then that'll make things a lot easier on him.
(2) Sustained velocity. It's one thing to be able to throw 96. It's quite another to be able to throw 96 in the seventh inning. Not that I expect Morrow to make it that far tomorrow, but how his fastball gets on towards the end of his outing could tell us something about just how far he's come along, and just how well his body is able to hold up to the rigors of starting. It'll also give us an indication of whether or not he's figured out an appropriate pace. Based on a sample size of Joba, this shouldn't be much of a concern, but it's something to watch for anyway.
(3) 30% offspeed stuff. 30% is kind of an arbitrary percentage, but what I'm looking for is a game in which Morrow leans on more than just his fastball to both set guys up and work out of trouble. He's not going to survive on a fastball alone. He needs to learn to trust his secondary pitches if he wants to cut it as a starter, and it'll be a lot easier for him to start doing that tomorrow than for him to start doing that down the road when he's already established himself as a fastball guy. Being able to consistently start hitters off with a first pitch breaking ball in the zone would rather quickly elevate Morrow into exclusive ranks. I'd like to see him start building towards getting there tomorrow night.
(4) Changeup to lefties. I don't expect Morrow to trust his changeup quite yet, but developing that pitch is his best bet if he wants to succeed against left-handed bats in the long run, so I want to see him try it out. Against a lineup expected to include Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, and Robinson Cano, he pretty much has to go to that well at least a handful of times, right? I'd like to see him force the trust. Just because he doesn't feel comfortable throwing it 0-0 or 2-1 doesn't mean he shouldn't try it anyway. It's not like there's anything to lose, and the sooner he gets a feel for the pitch, the sooner we can talk about him as a real asset in the rotation.
(5) Efficiency. This might be a little too much to ask in the short term, but still. Morrow's 4.3 P/PA would rank worst in the bigs among qualified starters, and he needs to be able to generate quicker outs, lest he Meche himself right out of favor. I don't expect him to be able to spot the ball wherever he wants - there's only a handful of guys capable of that on the planet - but I do expect him to be able to throw strikes when he needs, and in that regard, he's still a work in progress. Have I mentioned how nice it'd be for him to develop an adequate change? Being able to place that thing in the lower half of the zone to lefties would help him get a lot of first- and second-pitch groundouts. I'm just saying.
I don't expect Brandon Morrow to be great by the end of September. I don't even expect him to be good. But if he's able to do some of these things, or all of them, then that'll get the ball rolling as he approaches the biggest winter and spring training of his brief career. I can think of few things that would make me more optimistic about the future than Morrow having a successful month out of the rotation.
Brandon Morrow the starter has always sounded nice in theory. Now it's time to see it in practice. Tomorrow will be a lot of things, but what it won't be is just another game.