Can Brandon Morrow Be A Viable Fantasy Option For the Remainder of 2011?

By Kyle Johansen

After a 17-strikeout performance last August helped propel Brandon Morrow to the fantasy forefront, the former 5th overall pick appeared to be a prime breakout candidate for 2011.  Morrow instead has completely underwhelmed as he opened the season on the DL before proceeding to torpedo owner’s rate stats with a 5.63 ERA to go along with a 1.49 WHIP midway through June.

Despite those bloated statistics, Morrow continues to blow hitters away.  After leading the league in K/9 last year, Morrow is again proving that he is still the number one source of strikeouts in baseball. His rate of 10.93 K/9 is comfortably ahead of Matt Garza (10.28), Cliff Lee (10.14) and Clayton Kershaw (10.01).  Predictably, control has always held Morrow back and his 4.14 BB/9 this year is just worse than last year’s rate of 4.06.

While his control leaves something to be desired, Morrow has shown an ability to cut his walks incrementally in the past.  In the second half last year Morrow was able to lower his walk rate by half a walk from 4.23 to 3.72 and posted a reasonable 3.76 in 2009 at Triple-A, so there is precedent for a gradual improvement in this area.

Despite the awful results, according to his 2.55 FIP, Morrow has pitched like an ace.  Of pitchers with 50 or more innings this season, Morrow far and away has the largest gap between his ERA and his FIP, an unreal difference of 3.08 runs.  Next on the list is Brad Bergeson at 1.59 runs, followed by Matt Garza (1.55) and Daniel Hudson (1.24).   Only four pitchers in baseball have posted a better FIP than Morrow; Roy Halladay at 2.11, Matt Garza at 2.30, Cole Hamels at 2.33 and Dan Haren at 2.51.

The stat that is glaringly out of place when you look at Morrow is a strand rate of just 60.3%, which appears even lower given his strikeout ability.  Fueling his bad luck with runners on base is a .358 BABIP, which seems destined to decrease dramatically, although Morrow did post a similar BABIP of .342 a season ago.

The only red flags that can be found in Morrow’s numbers is a very low ground ball rate of just 27.2%, down from 40.4% a year ago, and an unsustainable HR/FB rate of 2.7%.  Due to the depressed home run rate, Morrow’s xFIP sits at a modest 3.61, which is still over two runs below his current ERA.  With his ground ball rate regressing to the mean, home runs allowed should continue to be a non-issue for Morrow who has posted a 0.33 HR/9 after a similarly impressive rate of 0.68 last year

While Morrow is not likely to post an ERA near his 2.55 FIP from here on out, if he can be acquired at any kind of a discount there is plenty of value to be gained.   Morrow is showing that he is the elite source of strikeouts in the majors right now, and his rate stats should soon follow suit.

What are your thoughts of Morrow?  Do you think he could be a useful option from here on out?  Why or why not?

3 comments

  1. Chief Aloique says:

    I’ve never been able to really get a handle on how to interpret advanced Sabermetrics like FIP and such, but as a Morrow owner since 2008 who considers his starts “must see TV” this is what I’ve seen:

    Morrow this year is getting killed by the big inning. He can be sailing along like a Hall of Famer — and this is when and where he builds up his positive stats — but any scratch hit or questionable walk can lead to the roof caving in at any time. That’s when the walks start to come in bunches and so do the no-doubt-about-it line-drive base hits that no fielder can be expected to handle.

    My gut reaction to all of this is that I’m very afraid that Morrow, for whatever reason, just can’t pitch from a stretch. I’m no pitching coach and I sure can’t tell a “two-seamer” from a “four-seamer” from a cutter from a hole in the ground no matter how big the TV screen is. It just seems like whenever he gets in trouble everything he throws comes in hard and flat and the batters all know it. At those times you just hardly ever see any of those tricky breaking balls that other less-talented pitchers use to get themselves out of those kinds of innings.

    As a fantasy manager, I don’t even think of starting or sitting him depending on the pitching venue or the team he’s facing. I just send him out there and hope for the best. When he’s on, he can make the Red Sox lineup look like the Oakland A’s, and vice versa when he’s not.

    • Chief Aloique says:

      By the way, this leads to a thought I’ve occasionally had with other pitchers, but even more with Morrow: at this point, with a guy like Morrow why even have him pitch from a stretch? Let the guy on first steal the base if that’s what it comes down to, but let Morrow stay in the wind-up where he can maximize use of his best stuff to get out of trouble.

      I have no right in telling someone how to pitch than I have telling a pilot how to fly a plane, but at the same time I don’t know what else to suggest to keep him out of the big inning.

    • Kyle Johansen says:

      You make an insightful observation here that helps explain Morrow’s very low strand rate of just 60% (league average is around 72%). I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t looked at this earlier, but after you mentioned the line drives I’m now noticing that Morrow has allowed line drives on 24.5% of balls put in play this year. This is just way too high (league average for hitters is around 19%) and helps to explain his bloated BABIP. Last year he allowed just 17.8% line drives, so I would hope this year is just an anomaly so far, but you may be onto something with his inability to pitch effectively out of the stretch. I would have to think this area would improve with more innings pitched, but it may be related to his elevated usage of the fastball (67.7% this year, 58.4% in 2010). This has come at the expense of his curveball (4.1% this year compared to 12.2% in 2010).

      The stats above definitely dampen my optimism for Morrow, but I would hope that he can turn things around in the second half as he did a season ago. He clearly has the skill to do so.

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