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Making Sense of Brandon Morrow’s ERA

Brandon Morrow is set to sign a three-year, $20 million contract extension with the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal reportedly includes a $10 million option or a $1 million buyout in 2015. While we don’t have the particulars of the deal at this point — including how much Morrow could make in each of his three seasons — it’s sure to create some arguments among fans.

In Morrow’s two seasons with the Blue Jays, his 4.62 ERA has been below-average among American League starters. Yet Morrow’s FIP and xFIP during the same time indicate that he should be one of the league’s better ones. As a result, many stat analysts have predicted a major improvement from Morrow. But until his ERA matches up with his advanced stats, Morrow is going to remain a frustrating player.

During the past two seasons, the difference between Morrow’s ERA and FIP (E-F) has been extreme. In 2010, among pitchers with at least 140 innings, Morrow 1.33 difference was the highest in baseball. While the large difference meant Morrow was likely to improve, he didn’t improve by much. Morrow’s 1.08 E-F in 2011 was the fourth highest on the leader board among qualified pitchers. Though his peripherals indicate Morrow pitched far better than his ERA, things have yet to even themselves out.

A look at Morrow’s performance with men on base reveals some interesting findings:

Brandon Morrow 2010 IP K% BB% FB% BABIP
Bases Empty 77.2 27.6 11.5 40.2 .312
Men on Base 68.2 29.2 9.3 43.7 .380
Men in Scoring 35.1 29.8 10.1 43.8 .411
Brandon Morrow 2011 IP K% BB% FB% BABIP
Bases Empty 104 25.8 8.7 37.6 .273
Men on Base 75.1 26.5 9.2 47.4 .335
Men in Scoring 40 26.3 10.2 49.5 .355

Morrow’s peripherals — particularly his K and BB percentage — don’t change all that drastically when he has runners on base. In 2010, Morrow’s walk rate was actually at its lowest with men on base. While his walk rate increased with men on base in 2011, his strikeout rate jumped too.

Morrow tends to give up more fly balls with men on base, as well — perhaps as a result of pitching up in the zone to get more strikeouts. While we typically expect fly balls to lead to a lower BABIP, Morrow’s BABIP actually increased in these situations.

Morrow’s poor BABIP with men on base could be one explanation for his difference between ERA and FIP. Either that, or Morrow is terrible out of the stretch. That argument doesn’t seem likely since most of his peripherals stay fairly consistent with men on base.

For Morrow’s ERA to match his FIP, his BABIP in crucial situations needs to decrease. Thankfully for Morrow, there’s a lot of year-to-year variance in league leaders when it comes to BABIP and men on base. Over the past five seasons, only five pitchers have finished in the top 10 in BABIP with men on base more than once. Those five are Morrow, Derek Lowe, Livan Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Kevin Millwood. The fact that Lowe, Hernandez and Millwood made the list multiple times shouldn’t be as surprising, since they’ve routinely given up lots of hits each season.

On this list, perhaps Verlander is most comparable to Morrow. It’s not a perfect comparison — Morrow strikes out and walks more hitters than Verlander — but the other guys on the list are generally low-strikeout guys who give up a lot of hits. Like Morrow, Verlander’s BABIP with men on base ranked in the top 10 for two consecutive seasons. Following those two years, though, his BABIP with men on base dropped to a more reasonable level. In 2011, Verlander’s .249 BABIP with men on base was one among the league’s lowest.

So what’s next for Morrow? It seems that luck —actually, the lack of it — has played a big role in Morrow’s struggles. Even if Morrow is less effective pitching from the stretch, it’s incredibly unlikely he’ll end up with another top 10 BABIP with men on base for yet another season. This year, his ERA might finally match his FIP. If that happens, Morrow would go from one of the most frustrating starters in baseball to one of the best.