Toronto's Brandon Morrow was a trendy breakout candidate entering 2012. The 27-year-old right hander, equipped with a power fastball/slider combo and coming off a season in which he struck out the highest percentage of batters among American League starters, had the stuff and the stats to suggest he was far better than the 4.72 ERA he posted in 2011.
Morrow's ERA has indeed dropped this year, down to 3.71. But the way he's getting those results, as SBNation's Jeff Sullivan notes, is downright peculiar. "Brandon Morrow, Power Pitcher" has vanished:
Morrow's started just four games so far this year. So, again, caveats. But over those four games, spanning just over 26 innings, Morrow's whiffed 12 batters. Last August 17, in a start against the Mariners, Morrow whiffed 12 batters. On August 23, 2010, Morrow whiffed 12 batters. On August 8, 2010, Morrow whiffed 17 batters. Brandon Morrow presently has approximately the same strikeout rate as Clayton Richard and Lucas Harrell. He has a lower strikeout rate than Barry Zito.
After punching out 26.1% of the batters he faced in 2011, Morrow has whiffed just 11.3% in 2012. That's sixth-lowest among starting pitchers. It is early in the season, but changes in strikeout rate become significant after a pretty short period of time (about 150 hitters faced; Morrow has battled 106 to this point). Morrow has also seemingly changed his approach with his usually dominant fastball -- and not necessarily for the better.
Morrow's fastball is averaging 93.2 mph in 2012, which isn't much different from last year's 93.8 mph. His location of the pitch, however, is markedly different. Take a look at Morrow's fastball location and hitters' contact rate by location against the pitch in 2011:
Morrow threw lots of fastballs high in 2011 (43 percent). He also tossed many of those high fastballs out of the zone, with just 37% going over the plate. The result for Morrow was the highest fastball miss rate (22%) among AL starters. Now, look at his fastball location and hitters' contact rate by location in 2012:
Morrow's throwing fewer high fastballs (35 percent), and the high heat he does unleash is in the strike zone. Fifty-one percent of his high fastballs have been located in the zone, compared to last year's 37%. Morrow's percentage of low fastballs has increased from 24 to 31, and hitters haven't missed a single low heater that they have swung at.
That combination -- throwing more low fastballs overall, and putting the high fastballs that he does throw over the plate -- has resulted in a dramatic dip in miss rate. Batters have come up empty just 8.1% of the time they have swung at Morrow's fastball in 2012.
Morrow's pitch-to-contact approach has resulted in fewer walks and more ground balls, but the big hit in strikeouts would be a bad trade-off in the long run. His peripheral stats suggest his 2012 ERA should be closer to 4.70 than 3.70. Maybe Morrow can eventually make this strategy work, but he might just want to let his fastball ride high once again.