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« Yu Darvish vs. Ichiro | Main | Umpire Review: Opening Weekend (Part One) »

Brandon Morrow's Supposed Struggles from the Stretch

In 2010, Brandon Morrow produced what most baseball fans would view as mediocre results, with an ERA of 4.49. Yet heading into 2011, the sabermetrics community touted Morrow as a potential ace, pointing to impressive strikeout-to-walk ratios and bad luck on batting average on balls in play. Morrow’s predicted breakout year did not come close to fruition, as his ERA continued to rise, resting at 4.72 in over 179 innings. His strikeout-to-walk rates were just as impressive and his batted ball luck appeared neutral, but this time a failure to strand runners and work out of jams had torpedoed his results (He stranded 65.5% of runners- 71% is about average).

Heading into this year, many still view Morrow as a breakout candidate, but the narrative has changed a little. No one has soured on his ability to rack up strikeouts, but there seems to be a lurking suspicion that Morrow is ineffective with runners on base (as a result of his low 2011 strand rate). Poor mechanics out of the stretch and inability to work under pressure are commonly cited reasons for this issue. The difference between Morrow’s results with the bases empty and men on base seem to support this idea:

 Morrow allowed a much worse batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage with men on base, suggesting that he is indeed worse out of the stretch.            

Don’t be fooled by these results. Many different factors can affect outcomes for a pitcher- some are within the pitcher’s control and some are outside of the pitcher’s control. A pitcher has relatively more control over his strikeout, walk, and home run rates- these underlying skills are pretty good reflections of how well a pitcher is actually pitching. On the other hand, pitchers exert relatively little control over their batting average on balls in play (BABIP), the amount of balls in play that they allow to fall in for hits. Quality of defense, ballpark dimensions, weather, plain old luck, and other factors can skew a pitcher’s batting average on balls in play. So if Brandon Morrow really is fundamentally worse out of the stretch, we would expect his strikeout, walk, and home run rates to be worse with men on base than with the bases empty.

 We can see above, though, that his strikeout, walk, and home run rates are all about the same whether or not there are runners on base. This tells us that he exhibits a constant set of underlying skills regardless of situation.

The reason for his low strand rate is not differences in these core skills, but the difference in BABIP seen in the table above. Morrow allows hits on balls in play a whopping 34.2% of the time with men on and a relatively low 27.3% of the time with the bases empty. It is, of course, worse for a pitcher to allow hits on balls in play with men on, because more runs can be scored on a hit if there are already men on base.

So, to put it in simpler terms, last year, Morrow had equal amounts of “bad luck” and “good luck”, but most of his “bad luck” happened to occur when men were on base. If Morrow’s luck were to even out, and he were to allow hits on balls in play both 30% of the time with men on and 30% of the time with no men on, he would strand a lot more baserunners and his ERA would plummet.

Since his BABIP is largely outside Morrow’s control and driven by randomness, it is reasonable to expect this to happen. We can see from the splits of his strikeout, walk, and home run rates that he basically profiles as the same pitcher whether or not he is pitching from the stretch. In both scenarios he is racking up K’s, and limiting walks and homeruns. If his luck evens out on batted balls with runners on and he maintains this strong K/BB/HR profile, Morrow should finally make good on the breakout many have been expecting for the last two years.



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Reader Comments (3)

I don't know if I believe in this argument. Generally, BABIP does regress to the mean, but there are some players whose BABIP's sit above the norm and some whose BABIP's sit below the norm in certain situations. The typical situation where a player's BABIP will sit above the norm is in situations where other players can see the ball better out of a pitcher's hand, and that is exactly what happens with Morrow when he pitches out of the stretch. Yes, statistically that BABIP will come down no matter how good he is, but he could easily be a true .320 BABIP guy out of the stretch, his motion is completely open in those instances. Sometimes we have to look at things in a non-statistical way, even for stat heads (and I include myself in that category).

How many times does Morrow have to put up an insanely high BABIP with runners on base for it to be a legitimate trend and not an outlier? The sample we have is already very large.

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMoe Koltun

In response to Moe, I think a pitcher needs to put up probably 3 - 4 seasons of a high babip before we should take it seriously. I believe it was Tom Tango who suggested that it takes 3 seasons for BABIPs to stabilize, but now we're talking about less than half the plate apearances in a season (those with runners on). So maybe even 5 years?

When such a large percentage of the league sits between .290 and .310, then I believe we absolutely have to give that hypothesis the benefit of the doubt.

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatthias

I was thinking the same thing Matthias- He's only had two full or almost full seasons as a starter. And since less than half his plate appearances come with men on base, we really barely have one season's worth of BABIP data with men for 2010-2011 for Morrow. I don't think we can come close to concluding that Morrow has already demonstrated that he will always allow a high BABIP with runners on base. I'll look at his pitch selection tendencies/heat maps to see if there are substantial differences that could indicate a proclivity toward a higher BABIP when he has men on.

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSam Waters
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