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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.