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The Cubs’ Brandon Morrow signing, by the numbers

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Get to know the potential closer’s history, stats and pitch selection

Brandon Morrow pitches in game 5 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field - he’ll return in 2018 as a Cub.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After a slow start the Cubs have been locking down key pieces in rapid succession as the front office heads into winter meetings this week. They filled one of their rotation spots with Tyler Chatwood earlier this week and Sunday news broke that they had reached a deal, pending physicals, with Brandon Morrow. Most accounts seem to indicate that the Cubs are tapping Morrow for the closer role. The price tag reported here seems pretty reasonable:

Early promise and injuries

It is worth remembering that Brandon Morrow has always had top-tier stuff. In fact, in 2006 he was drafted in the first round, ahead of Andrew Miller and Clayton Kershaw.

The 2006 scouting report indicated he had a plus-plus fastball, a plus splitter that was “his out pitch” and projected him as a starter. Interestingly, that same scouting report seems to be making apologies for not drafting Andrew Miller instead, but makes no mention of failing to draft Clayton Kershaw.

Baseball is a weird game.

For all of his promise, Brandon Morrow had serious problems staying healthy as a starter. Interestingly, he indicated a preference for the closer role as early as 2009 because of control issues, and a recognition that the bullpen might be a better fit long term since Morrow is a Type I Diabetic. A shoulder injury in 2009 ended that experiment, and he’s bounced back and forth between the pen, starting and the disabled list with regularity. The injury list is impressive, and by far the biggest question mark about this signing, take a look for yourself:

2009: Biceps Tendinitis
2011: Right Forearm Inflammation
2012: Left Oblique Strain
2013: Right Forearm Strain
2013: Entrapped Radial Nerve
2014: Right Sprained Index Finger
2015: Right Shoulder Inflammation
2015: Shoulder Impingement

I will be the first to admit that list is a bit overwhelming and concerning, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by what Morrow did in between those DL stints. Most spectacularly, it’s worth remembering this game on August 8, 2010: a one-hit, 17-strikeout gem against the Rays that earned Morrow a rare 100 game score, a potential no-hitter broken up with two out in the ninth.

An outstanding 2017

The Dodgers took a chance on Morrow’s raw talent and signed him to a one-year deal for 2017 and he was a crucial player in their National League championship and return to the World Series. Cubs fans will be forgiven for blacking out some of these memories, because in 4⅔ innings of work against them in the NLCS he gave up one hit and struck out seven. It wasn’t just post-season magic. The Ringer had a nice summary of Morrow’s work for the Dodgers in July:

Brandon Morrow, though, is a fascinating failed starter. He is a 32-year-old on his fourth big league organization, with about 150 major league innings on his CV since 2013, all with a worse-than-average ERA+ and strikeout rate. But in 13 innings in 2017, Morrow’s struck out 15 against one walk. On Tuesday night, he allowed his first runs of the season after 11 straight scoreless appearances to start his Dodgers career.

That article also has a brilliant writeup of the aforementioned game against the Rays, I highly recommend reading the whole thing, it gives a very good sense of the up and down nature of Morrow’s career.

Brandon Morrow ended 2017 healthy and with some pretty exceptional numbers according to Fangraphs. His ERA of 2.06 actually underperformed his 1.55 FIP. He slashed his BB/9 to 1.85 and boosted his K/9 to 10.31. While he was better against lefties than righties during 2017, he was pretty devastating against both. Lefties slashed .125/.183/.125 against Morrow. Righties slashed a slightly better, but still not good, .231/.273/.260.

Pitch selection

At least some of the success that Morrow experienced last year may be attributable to changing his pitches. Specifically, Morrow stopped throwing his splitter and has added some significant velocity to his fastball. These charts from Brooks Baseball comparing Morrow in 2016 and 2017 show both well:

2016 Brandon Morrow Pitch Selection
Brooks Baseball
2017 Brandon Morrow Pitch Selection
Brooks Baseball

That velocity increase, combined with the way the cutter and slider can play off each other contributed to a career high swinging strikeout rate for Morrow last year of 16%. (For perspective, Wade Davis sported a 15.5% swinging strikeout rate last year.) As, Eno Sarris notes:

He got those swinging strikes thanks to the velocity — he was 18th last year among relievers with more than 40 innings in that regard. But he also had the best year of his life against lefties, backed by the best strikeout minus walk rate of his career against southpaws, and that was probably thanks to the cutter. But the cutter comes with some risk, and not only of the injury variety: others have pointed out the slider and cutter can blend together.

It is worth noting that the same piece highlights that the oft-injured Morrow was also one of the most overused relievers in modern times last post-season. We all saw how Maddon's use of Aroldis Chapman affected his effectiveness this year, and he does not have the injury history that Morrow has.

The takeaway

There is no question that Brandon Morrow has elite stuff, and the Cubs are not the first club to toy with the idea of harnessing that talent into a top tier closer. If everything goes right and Morrow can stay healthy for two years, the Cubs may very well have found a hidden gem.

In looking at the Cubs' offseason, however, a theme seems to be developing: high risk, high reward. Both Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow have a lot of reasons for optimism and a lot of reasons for skepticism, 2018 is looking like it could be a very interesting year.