The Toronto Blue Jays are, simply, a team on the rise. Not only does Jose Bautista– one of the best, if not the best, bats in baseball – reside north of the border; the team also has an exciting, youthful cast of supporting hitters.
Third baseman Brett Lawrie, if not for barely exceeding the plate appearance cutoff last season, would easily be the front-runner for rookie of the year. After posting a 4.4 fWAR (wins above replacement as determined by FanGraphs), shortstop Yunel Escobar, 29, is smack dab in the middle of his prime. Midseason pick Colby Rasmus, hopefully past the drama that surrounded him last season, will likely be a strong contender for comeback player of the year; his BABIP in 2011, .267, was nearly 60 points lower than his career mark coming into the season. Adam Lind and Kelly Johnson should at the very least be league average starters. And for all the disappointment he’s suffered throughout his young career, outfielder Travis Snider is still only 24 years old. It’s an intruiging — and potentially impressive — collection of hitters.But what it will all come down too – and what it always seems to hinge upon – is the pitching, namely the rotation.
The bullpen, of course, seems strong on paper. Closer Sergio Santos tied for sixteenth among fWAR last season, at 1.6. Follow newcomer Francisco Cordero has been a bullpen stalwart throughout his entire career, as has ageless-wonder Darren Oliver (at least since his fulltime conversion). And Jason Frasor is a more than serviceable reliever too.
But if the team hopes to be this season’s Cinderella, someone will need to step up behind Rickey Romero, who is likely to decline next season as his BABIP, .242, regresses. That someone, of course, will be Brandon Morrow.
General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has made more than a few astute moves – locking up Bautista, acquiring Rasmus at a time when his value will never be lower, and the same could be said about Escobar too, just to name a few – but swapping solid reliever Brandon League for Brandon Morrow in the winter of 2009 could very well turn out to be among his smartest moves (perhaps the smartest if it weren’t for the team-friendly Bautista extension).
In the history of baseball, there have been 10 starting pitchers (excluding reliever Dick Selma) to throw 300 or more innings and average more than 9 SO/9 and less than 4 BB/9 between their 25- and 26-year old seasons: “Sudden” Sam McDowell, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Sandy Koufax, Jake Peavy, Jon Lester, Ben Sheets, and the newest comer to the group, Brandon Morrow.
It would be foolish, of course, to assume that Morrow is destined for greatness considering the present company. He does, after all, sport the highest walk rate, 3.73 BB/9, among them. But it is also very telling that, yes, despite the bloated ERA, 4.62, his name is among some of the history’s most noticeable young starting pitchers.
That notwithstanding, there are several additional reasons to believe that Morrow could develop into an elite starting pitcher.
Prior to 2010, Morrow has never really had an extended period as a starting pitcher, even going back as far as his collegiate days are concerned. During his three-year career at the University of California he made 43 career appearances, 24 of them starts, 14 of which were during his final season. Then, after being selected by the Mariners as the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft, the organization allowed him five starts before transitioning him into a fulltime reliever, where he remained through 2008, though he did make 10 starts between Triple-A and the big leagues. His last year before the trade to Toronto was more of a transition-type period: he started 10 games each with Tacoma and the Mariners. Overall, he made 131appearances with the team, 15 of them starts. Since the trade to Toronto, however, he’s made 56 appearances, 56 starts.
The point: It’s going to take time to build him up as a starter, and the Blue Jays are doing just that. He threw 146.1 innings in 2010 and 179.1 last season. Barring injury, he’s poised to top 200 innings for the first time in his life in 2012.
And the way his numbers are trending suggest that those are going to be a valuable 200 innings.
First, the basics: Since becoming a fulltime starter, Morrow has posted an unsightly 4.62 ERA, but according to SIERA (Skill Independent ERA), an ERA estimator more advanced than FIP and xFIP because it accounts for balls in play, he’s actually pitched far better. His SIERA over the past two seasons is 3.31, the eighth lowest mark in baseball, trailing only Roy Halladay, Cliff, Lee, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Grienke, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander. Basically, he’s been unlucky, really unlucky.
But, wait, there’s more.
Consider this: His walk rate as a starter has continued to improve, from an unsightly 5.26 BB/9 in ten starts in 2009, to 4.06 BB/9 in 26 starts in 2010, to 3.46 BB/9 last season. All of this while keeping his strikeout rate above 10 SO/9.
Oh, yeah, during his 66 starts since 2009, he’s had the fourth highest swing-and-miss percentage too, at 11.2%.
Look, for everything that Ricky Romero did well last season – 15 wins, 225 innings, and a 2.92 ERA – he was, in fact, a little lucky. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was an unsustainable .242, the third lowest in baseball. He’s going to regress, at least a little bit. And given everything about Morrow – the power arsenal, his fastball averaged 93.9 MPH last season, the seventh highest mark in baseball, his improving walk rates, the amount of swings-and-misses he generates, his impeccably low SIERAs – there’s every reason to suggest that he will not only outperform Romero, but he should finally become of the best in baseball. Period.
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