Franklin Morales: Back, For The First Time

When the Red Sox acquired Franklin Morales from the Rockies last season, no one paid much attention. At the time of the deal, he hadn’t pitched in four days, and hadn’t recorded an out in seven. When he began his Red Sox career by allowing four runs in three innings in his first two outings, there was similarly no reason for Red Sox nation to sit up and take notice — he was just another re-tread lefty that the team would have to cycle through now that Hideki Okajima had turned back into a pumpkin. Fast forward one year though, and Morales is catching everyone’s attention, as — for the moment — he is once again impressing as a starter. The difference is that this time, there is reason to believe it’s for real.

Last night against the Mariners, Morales put up what was, by game score, tied for the second-best start of 2012 by a Red Sox starter, along with Josh Beckett’s outing on May 15th (coincidentally, or perhaps not, also against Seattle). It was also the best start of his still-young career, by either game score (76) or WPA (.40).

Rockies’ fans with long memories will note that we have seen these results before from Morales. In the 2007 stretch run, Morales put together a three-start stretch in September where he was similarly unhittable. Against the Phillies, Marlins and Padres, he threw 17 scoreless innings, allowing just seven hits, and striking out 15 batters against just five walks. He threw 61% of his pitches for strikes. The mastery did not last, however. Morales teetered on the edge of effective and not effective in his last regular-season outing and two postseason outings before getting absolutely firebombed by the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series, an outing in which he allowed seven runs in 2/3 of an inning in relief of starter Jeff Francis.

But even those three starts don’t hold a candle to his last three. In his three most recent outings, he has struck out 24 batters against just three walks over 18 innings. He has thrown 72% of his pitches for strikes, and he has generated more ground balls as well. Combine those three outings with his two long-relief stints at the beginning of the month, and you have a guy who has struck out 31 and walked just three this month. That’s a 10.33 K/BB, and it is has been bettered this month by only three pitchers. And none of them are also rocking a K/9 higher than 9.0 like Morales is.

Looking at his swing ratios, it’s clear that in his small sample of innings this season, Morales has improved dramatically. But rather than look at the numbers themselves, let’s look at them in comparison to league average:

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% F-Strike% SwStr%
2007 Below Below Below Below Below Below
2008 Below Below Below Below Below Below
2009 Below Below Below Above Below Above
2010 Below Above Below Below Below Below
2011 Below Above Below Above Above Above
2012 Above Above Above Above Above Above

Now, there may be noise in those numbers. After all, Morales has never thrown 50 innings in a season. But across the board this year, he is starting with strike one more frequently, and is getting more swings and less contact. His 35.1% O-Swing% this season ranks seventh in the game among those with at least 40 innings pitched, and his 11.7% SwStr% is tied for tenth. Breaking down his stats into splits is likely folly given the extremely small samples, but while all of his seasons contain small samples, this is the only season in which he’s been effective against right-handed pitching. His 4.00 K/BB against righties this season dwarfs his career 1.51 mark. His 2.82 FIP against righties is also easily a career best.

It seems that Morales is mixing up his pitches a bit better as well. In scanning data from Pitchf/x, Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers, Morales is throwing his four-seam fastball less and using his two-seam fastball/sinker, curveball and changeup/splitter much more frequently than he has in the past. The two-seamer in particular is a pitch that he is featuring more, and he is able to get more movement on it than his four-seam fastball while still generating the same velocity. More movement with the same velocity is not something you see very often, and so far, the results for Morales have been lethal.

There is no telling what will come next for Morales. If he was throwing the same mix of pitches and generating the same below-average number of swings and misses, it would be easy to discount these three starts. After all, his opponents were the Cubs, Braves and Mariners, which is a far cry from offensive juggernauts like the Rangers, Cardinals and Yankees. But he’s not doing that — he is throwing different pitches, and getting different results, and they back up the great bottom-line numbers he has put up. At 1.2 WAR, this has already been Morales’ best season, and we haven’t even reached the half-way mark.

Ever since he flamed out in Colorado, few have paid Morales any mind, but his performance this past month, combined with Josh Beckett’s impending return, has spurred Boston manager Bobby Valentine to institute a six-man rotation until the All-Star break. When Clay Buchholz returns, Morales could find himself the sixth-man in a five-man rotation. But right now, for the first time, he is harnessing his stuff like it was always imagined he would. Franklin Morales has achieved success in a Major League uniform before, but should he remain in the Red Sox rotation, this may be the first time that he has truly arrived.

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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

45 Responses to “Franklin Morales: Back, For The First Time”

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  1. RC says:

    Its funny, right now, the Red Sox best starters are Franklin Morales, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Felix Doubront. Who woulda thunk it?

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    • Jonathan says:

      Not so, actually. Doubront’s been running into trouble his last few times out.

      Even with un-Lester-like base stats, Lester has been better than Doubront since early May.

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  2. Breaking News says:

    Another article on fangraphs about the Red Sox. What a complete surprise that absolutely no one could have saw coming.

    -36 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Jimbo says:

    I watched his outing last night. Definitely see the “stuff” factor, but imo how he fares will largely be linked to the guy calling balls and strikes each night.

    He got more than a little help with called strikes that can easily make the difference between a great outing, a good one, and a ‘meh.’ Starting 2-1 vs 1-2 batter after batter will be key to watch with him.

    Against the Mariners even when they were sitting fastball he often won the battle. Good enough to escape control issues, and potentially dominant if his control improves.

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  4. everdiso says:

    What a shock, a Red Sox pitcher has three good games and Fangraphs is ready to crown him. The fact that they have to rely on a fluke like this just shows how poorly built they are. And let’s ignore the fact that Morales’ record is 1-1 on the season. What a stud!

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  5. Matt says:

    Too bad that an otherwise good article about a potentially undervalued player is being ignored in favour of some petty comments. If the best reply you can make is that some reader is a douche or a troll, then do the rest of us a favour and don’t bother with your post.

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  6. Ash says:

    Is there anything to these converted relievers running out of gas around the 80-100 inning mark of the season? Exhibit a jeff samardzija. Exhibit b lance lynn

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  7. Don Draper says:

    To Paul swydan: do you think the redsox will look into trading him after buccholz gets back?

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  8. ODawg says:

    Glad to see an analysis on Morales. Very interesting case of a former top prospect who might ultimately put it together. I don’t see how what team he plays for is a factor in the article. I look to FanGraphs to analyze how real sudden improvements like this might be, so thank you.

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  9. jirish says:

    I’m not much of a ‘stat’ person, but I read these articles hoping that one day everything makes sense to me.

    May I make a simple observation here-one that has nothing to do with numbers? Playing baseball at this level is hard. It’s especially hard for pitchers-so much has to go right for them to have success and many pitchers-even with great stuff, have a whole lot to learn. Could it simply be that Franklin Morales has finally learned from past mistakes on the mound, and now has a better understanding of what he needs to do?
    Don’t a lot of player struggle through failures? Morales may have simply learned how to pitch.

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  10. Alex says:

    Let’s see Morales’ command hold-up for a while before we crown him anything..

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    • blahblahblah says:

      No one is crowning anyone anything. But…

      25.1 IP, 16 H, 3 BB, 31 SO, .174/.200/.239, 4 ER for 1.42 ERA
      11.01 K/9, 1.07 BB/9, 10.33 K/BB, .262 BAbip

      …that is worth taking notice of and mentioning

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  11. JF45 says:

    “and to be fair, aside from the silly comment about Morales’ irrelevant 1-1 w/l record, troll everdiso’s comment here is pretty much bang on otherwise.”

    God, you’re an idiot.

    A former top prospect that they acquired for cash when his value was at it’s lowest turns into good reliever and now has a few nice starts and that’s evidence of a POOR job by the Red Sox FO? You should thank your “impostor”, he actually makes you look good compared to what you really believe.

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    • everdiso says:

      I’d say that a $200m payroll team relying on Doubront and Morales as key starters is best described as poor management, yes.

      if it makes you feel better to call that idiotic, and feel that Morales being one of many boderline MLB pitchers to throw a handful of good starts at some point shows the genius of the red sox FO, then go for it.

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      • blahblahblah says:

        Doubront was a top-10 prospect going into 2011, and Morales is a long-man being used as an Injury replacement.

        The only thing idiotic around here is your strange, obsessive hatred for a baseball team, an obsession which you apparently feel the need to show the world

        Its really pitiful, and makes you look like you probably need some serious mental help.

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      • JF45 says:

        Now let’s travel back to reality land:

        1. They don’t have a $200m payroll.
        2. Morales is not being “relied on as a key starter”. He filled in for Beckett, who missed a couple starts, and he’s been so good he’s forced his way into the rotation for the time being.
        3. I, nor anyone else, called the Red Sox geniuses wrt Morales. That’s your insecurity/jealousy causing you to project.

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      • JF45 says:

        Oh, and again, Felix Doubront, a home grown guy, a guy they scouted and signed as a 16 year old for a small signing bonus, came up through the system, develops into a serviceable MLB starter, and this is yet another example of the Red Sox failing.

        You’re really convincing us, man.

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      • everdiso says:

        I wonder how I’m the only one to see it, really. A non-boston website posting in depth articles on every red sock borderline mlber who has a hot couple of weeks.


        LH F.Morales (26): 221.1ip, 7.7hr/fb%, 4.23era, 4.28fip, 4.64xfip
        LH A.Laffey (27): 394.2ip, 8.2hr/fb% , 4.22era, 4.49fip, 4.72xfip

        2012 as Starter

        LH F.Morales (26): 3gs, 6.0ip/gs, 0.0hr/fb%, 2.00era, 0.89fip, 2.26xfip
        LH A.Laffey (27): 2gs, 6.0ip/gs, 11.1hr/fb%, 1.50era, 3.64fip, 3.64xfip

        I’m sure we’re all waiting with baited breath for the in-depth Laffey analysis.

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      • blahblahblah says:

        “I wonder how I’m the only one to see it, really.”

        because you’re obsessive compulsive, filled with an unhealthy biased hatred which you use to persuade yourself into believing your own nonsense. (Laffey? The guy with a sad 4.5 K/9 and fluke .171 BAbip in those three supposedly impressive starts? Seriously? You cant be that stupid, can you?)

        Morales was once the #8 prospect in all of Baseball. He suffered major control issues and problems keeping his head in the game. His stuff was never in question.

        Skip ahead a few years and he has his mind right, has developed a new pitch, has increased his FB speed, and most importantly finally eliminated the control issues. He pitches extremely well in relief for more then a year then moves to the rotation because of an injury. Once there, he instantly flat out dominates hitters over 3 games – showing all of the stuff everyone always knew he had, but this time with none of the problems. And I mean SICK numbers here – 12.0 K/9 and 1.50 BB/9 off a perfectly normal .318 BAbip for a ridiculous 0.89 FIP and 2.26 xFIP. Unless he flatout forgets how to throw strikes, those numbers are sustainable – unlike the smoke and mirrors of your illogical Laffey comparison.

        None of that should ever be talked about though because Morales is a RedSox player and those are not to be mentioned – well, according to this one random, obsessively bitter RedSox hater.

        It didnt really matter to me too much before, but now I really hope Morales continues his Cliff Lee like rebirth and goes on to dominate for years – just so your pitiful little hate filled mind explodes!

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  12. first timer says:

    I don’t like everdiso or the faked everdiso, confusing (but do like one and not the other). Don’t understand the Boston vitriol on this sight… least we dont need to hear about Bobby V.

    So the 22 year old got lit up in Game 1for SEVEN runs in 2/3inning…….lost confidence and control…..figured something out and clearly has the stuff to survive when he’s hitting his spots. He’s feeling good,so ride the wave. Strong Buy two starts ago after 9k’s thru 5.

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  13. Tim says:

    I agree, the Red Sox luck out all the time with guys like Morales and Daniel Nava, who are clearly the biggest factor in their success.

    Now, look at a real genius like AA, for example. The best player on his team, by far, the only guy keeping them (barely) relevant, was the biggest blind luck unprecedented fluke of the past 20 years. Oh, wait, nevermind….

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  14. Hirm says:

    Which part of the 200m dollar payroll goes towards the magic healing machine that prevents any injuries from occurring?

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  15. james wilson says:

    Anyone who has taken the trouble to actually watch Morales pitch in these starts would be a little cautious about predicting a slide back to mediocrity for him. Left handed, no walks, 95 gas first and last, easy splitter, there isn’t a GM in baseball who wouldn’t jump on him right now.

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    • AJ says:

      James – excellent point. I was beginning to think I was the only one who actually saw him pitch. Of course there is a chance his command falls by the waist-side as it’s done in the past – but this article isn’t nominating him for the Cy Young. It’s simply saying “hey… might want to keep an eye on this kid”. And it’s right. Former top prospect who has always had the raw talent to be an ace, but never got it together for long enough to matter. Now he’s in a good situation, on a team that wins, pitching the way we always knew he was capable of. He’s more than worthy of watching, as both a fantasy player and a run of the mill fan.

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