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September 12, 2008 at 9:29 AM

Thoughts on Morrow

Good morning to all of you and thank you for your kind words on yesterday’s Sept. 11 blog post. They were much appreciated. To Gwon Chang, I’m sorry for your loss and I hope this space provides a place for you to escape to once in a while over the difficult days that lie ahead. In the end, that’s what baseball is for a lot of you, and us. A pleasant escape. Let’s all try to remember that.
I had looked forward to an escape of sorts last night by watching Brandon Morrow. Like many of you, I was not expecting a repeat of last week. Didn’t expect last week to begin with. And we sure didn’t come away surprised, did we? I mean, five innings, 90 pitches was sort of what I’d expected against the Yankees. Not so much against an Angels crew that sees fewer pitches per plate appearance than any AL team. I did expect to see Morrow go a bit deeper, but I’m not exactly shocked that he didn’t.
First off, the idea that anything we see here is an indicator of what to expect in 2009 really does have to be discarded for now. All we’re seeing now — and all we’re going to see the next couple of starts — is Morrow getting his feet wet as a starting pitcher. What we won’t know, until next year, is how consistent he’s going to be as a starter. Felix Hernandez, as you know, is now into his fourth season of pitching, having been called up in the second half of 2005. While Hernandez can dominate on some nights, he can look downright ordinary on others. He is a very good good pitcher, but still not an “ace” as they tend to be defined.
Yes, his ERA is a very pleasant 3.41. But Erik Bedard also has a very pleasant ERA. When you start talking about aces, the ability to regularly go seven or more innings with the pleasant ERA must come into play. And Hernandez has only done that three times in his last 12 outings since that unfortunate play at the plate back in June. Maybe it was the injury that threw Hernandez’s season off slightly, maybe not. But his overall numbers have tailed off in the second half. They looked very ace-like in the first half. But being an ace requires consistency over a full season. So, I’d say that for now, having made acceptable progress this season for a 22-year-old, Hernandez will continue along that slowly progressing path towards one day becoming an ace. But he still isn’t there yet.
Which brings us back to Morrow, who some, for obvious reasons, were trying to equate to Hernandez last week. Hey, we all got caught up in it. I don’t want to cover a rebuilding team for the next five years and would be thrilled if Morrow could become Hernandez’s equivalent overnight and speed that process up by a few seasons. But the point is, we’ll never know going off what we’re now seeing.
A couple of things heading into last night were going to prevent us from knowing the full extent of Morrow’s “progress” before he even threw a pitch.

For one, he was throwing on five days’ rest. The Mariners could have started him on Wednesday against the Texas Rangers — a team that can slug as well as any in baseball. But they opted instead to throw out a slew of relief pitchers. I understand the rationale. The team was worried that Morrow threw too many pitches his last time out against New York and probably taxed his arm. Add in the fact that the Texas game was an early afternoon affair and Morrow would have had 3 1/2 days’ rest between outings when the previous outing was a little too much. That’s fine. Understood.
But then, you still won’t learn anything about Morrow’s ability to take the ball every five days. Extenuating circumstances or not, any starter other than the fifth guy has to be able to go out every five days and pitch. If not, your team can run into problems. There have been pitchers on this staff, starting with Bedard and Hernandez, who have taken the ball every five days (at least, some of the time they have) despite an assortment of injuries. Hernandez missed some games because of a calf problem, but also went out there on days when his calf still wasn’t completely right and pitched on normal rest. Bedard skipped some starts, yes, but also pitched through discomfort in his hip, back and shoulder on normal rest. Not all the time, which is a big part of the criticism he’s taken this year. But some of the time. Miguel Batista was hurting all year and continued to pitch. Carlos Silva battled back stiffness for a while, but pitched. No, Batista and Silva did not produce results worthy of staying in there. There are degrees of pain that can’t be pitched through effectively, and it’s a fine-line to determine what constitutes that. But Jarrod Washburn has produced good results for more than half a season now. And yet, he has been battling through discomfort for weeks in various parts of his body, requiring some painkiller injections.
That’s just the normal part of being a major league pitcher. The same way Jeff Clement was catching games with torn knee cartilage until the pain became unbearable. Every pitcher experiences degrees of pain throughout the year. But they are expected to pitch through it on normal rest.
Now, please understand. No one is calling Morrow a wimp. And I’m not for an instant saying that he begged off, or that the team is taking the wrong course by protecting a valuable future asset. But I am saying that this is what the team is doing. Protecting a valuable future asset. They are not forcing Morrow to do what other starters in Seattle have done this season. Take his normal rotation turn. And we won’t know the full extent of what Morrow can or can’t do unless he does that on a regular basis.
So, scratch that off. The most he’s liable to get now is a couple of consecutive starts on normal rest before the season ends. Instead of four. So, that won’t tell us much.
The second point, again not his fault, is that the lineups he’ll now face may not be very close to a reasonable major league facsimile. That lineup the Angels trotted out was disappointing. No Torii Hunter, no Mark Teixeira. Without them, the Angels are not the same team that just clinched the division quicker than the AL West has ever been won.
The bottom five guys in the order had combined for only 576 at-bats in the majors this season, with catcher Jeff Mathis racking up half of those by himself. Sure, that Brandon Wood guy can hit the ball out of the park — in Class AAA. But he didn’t see too many pitchers down there who throw like Morrow.
So, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Morrow throwing nothing but fastballs the first time around to anyone not named Vladimir Guerrero. Why wouldn’t he? Once he got by Guerrero and Juan Rivera, most of the guys he was facing weren’t going to catch up to even 95 mph heat. So, you had to be patient last night to get a look at the important stuff with Morrow, namely, his secondary pitches. He did make Garret Anderson look bad on that nasty changeup. But Anderson is known to be fooled by changeups. R.A. Dickey made Anderson look really bad on a changeup in a spring training game, then tried it again and got rocked for a long home run when the lefty slugger guessed what was coming. But Anderson is getting up there in age and can be had by changeups.
I was more impressed by the power curve Morrow struck Guerrero out on. Guerrero can be down 0-2 in the count and hit a pitch that’s a foot off the plate and three inches off the ground out of the ballpark. He is not Anderson. So, that pitch got my attention.
For me, the biggest thing I’m going to take out of Morrow’s September, other than the fact he has now gone at least the minimum five innings in consecutive starts (which is important for any starter to do) is that he has another pitch he can throw in key situations. Or, at least, try to throw. A three-pitch starter is a risk, unless you have Johan Santana’s changeup. But Morrow hasthe makings of a legit four-pitch guy. At least, at times he is. That power curve is a reason to turn on the TV, or go to the ballpark, to watch Morrow. It’s not a big, sweeping curve like Barry Zito used to throw. It has more of a “dipsy-doodle” action. A quick little skip. Or, when he throws it intentionally lower, it looks like one of J.J. Putz’s splitters. In fact, it fooled the much-hailed P/FX system into thinking he was throwing a splitter the first time around against the Yankees.
But we saw, throughout the game, that Morrow could not get a proper feel for that pitch. How many times, in key situations, did we see him throw a ball that looked like it was going over the batter’s head? That was Morrow trying to throw the power curve without the proper grip. We’ve written this before and we’ll say it again, pitching is not like riding a bike. Some pitchers, like Mark Lowe, take detailed notes about the grip they use on certain pitches so that they will remember what they did. We’ve seen Silva struggle all year to get the grip down on his sinker. Sometimes, he feels like he’s got it, only to see it vanish again by his next start. The staff aces are the ones that get all of this down and then make quick adjustements when a grip deserts them. Because no pitcher is perfect. They all lose it from time to time. Even from start to start. The margin for error in big league ball is razor thin and a pitcher losing his feel is not a newsflash for anyone who knows what they are talking about.
Morrow lost his feel at times last night. But he got it back in others.
All in all, a good outing for him. I continue to be excited because I can see the potential that power curve holds for him now that Morrow seems confident enough about throwing the changeup to dangerous hitters. It has the potential to make him a top-of-the-rotation starter in a few years. Probably not in 2009, when he’ll try to make 30 starts for the first time and will experience all the discomfort that comes with that.
But it’s a work in progress. And it will continue to be even if Morrow goes out and stymies the Royals next week. We won’t know much about Morrow until he takes the ball every fifth day and shows he can throw his pitches with consistency.
Please, don’t let this spoil your fun. Morrow is a fun pitcher to watch precisely because of that power curve and the plus-fastball and the changeup that stops hitters in their tracks. And once he puts it all together, over a full season, this team might be able to plan on something other than looking up at the Angels.
Since the regular AL West race is now done, we’ll have to find some other “races” to keep you interested.
First, there’s the Steven Stasburg race, for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
Washington 56-90 .384 —
San Diego 57-90 .388 0.5
SEATTLE 57-88 .384 1.5
The Mariners didn’t help themselves with that winning homestand.
For those of you who can’t stomach a negative race, where the point is to lose, I offer you a race of a different kind down below:
Filled you in a couple of days ago on how my MLB2K season, playing with my version of the Mariners, is going. These Mariners were tied for first place with Texas in the AL West, heading into yesterday’s series finale against the Angels at Safeco. Only 12,453 fans showed up, put off by my high ticket pricing, but the M’s won 9-0 behind a two-hit shutout thrown by emergency starter Brett Tomko (who notched 13K). Paul Byrd needed a Morrow-like extra day’s rest. Tomko still has a 7.78 ERA, which shows you how bad he’s been and how unusual this start was for him. The key to the game was three conseuctive home runs in the second inning off Angels starter Jon Lieber. The first, came from Edwin Encarnacion, who is having one heck of a season. Then, two more came from Robinson Cano and Wes Helms on consecutive pitches.
After that, it remained 3-0 until J.D. Drew hit his 69th homer of the year, a three-run shot to finish off Lieber, in the sixth. Drew hit his 70th homer in a three-run eighth and Tomko went the distance for the first time this season. The Rangers were idle, so the M’s have a half-game lead atop the division at 76-57. They now head off to Toronto to begin a three-game series that will open the month of September.



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