When a pitcher strikes out a lot of batters while keeping his home runs and walks allowed to a minimum, good things generally happen. Prior to this season, there were 31 occurrences of a season in which a starting pitcher threw at least 140 innings with a K/9 greater than 10.0 with a BB/9 less than 3.5 and a HR/9 below 1.0. The list includes some of the game’s greatest pitchers: Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling (3x), Sandy Koufax (2x), Nolan Ryan (4x), Pedro Martinez (4x), and Randy Johnson, who had nine (9!) such seasons. The list also includes some surprises like Jason Schmidt, Mike Scott, and Erik Bedard. Recently, we’ve seen Scott Kazmir, Justin Verlander, and Tim Lincecum (2x) put up these kind of seasons.
Zack Grienke (10.67 K/9, 2.16 BB/9, 1.02 HR/9) is close to joining the list; however, as of right now Brandon Morrow is the only pitcher in baseball on pace for membership to my arbitrary statistical club. After his start this weekend, Morrow has a K/9 of 10.41, a BB/9 of 3.45, and a HR/9 of 0.97.
There is one huge difference between the Toronto righty and the rest of the list.
Not including Morrow, the average ERA from such a season is 2.65. Of the 31 occurrences, 13 of them ended with the pitcher winning the ERA title. Morrow, on the other hand, is slated to finish in the bottom 10 of ERA qualifiers in his league. With a 9-10 record and an ERA of 4.78, Morrow is glaring the outlier of the group. His closest competition is Verlander, who posted a 3.45 ERA in 2009.
Like Verlander in ‘09, Morrow has a considerable difference between ERA and FIP. In fact, the gap between Morrow’s ERA and FIP is the largest in the majors this season. His 3.42 FIP is not elite; however, it is 12th best in the American League; a much better indication of his talent level compared to his ERA.
This is not the first time this has happened to Morrow. Last season he put up similar numbers and suffered a similar fate. In 146.1 innings, he posted a K/9 of 10.95, a BB/9 of 4.06, and a HR/9 of 0.68. His 3.16 FIP was the seventh best in the AL (min. 140 innings). Meanwhile, thanks in part to a .342 BABIP, his ERA was 4.49.
Morrow has a much more manageable .305 BABIP this season. That said, his ERA has risen although he has seen a decrease in baserunners allowed. Despite having fewer men on base, Morrow is allowing a higher rate of runners to score. After stranding just 69% of his runners last season, his left on-base percentage of 64.4% this season is the second worst among qualified AL starters (Fausto Carmona 63.6%).Whether you look to the rule of 72 or his career rate of 70.8%, Morrow has room to improve in this category.
Looking at pitch selection, Morrow relies heavily on his fastball with or without runners on base. He goes to his slider a bit more with runners on; however, the slider is arguably his best pitch. The problem may be in pitch sequencing or some other issue when he enters the stretch if not just dumb luck.
With a blazing fastball, a nasty slider, and excellent peripheral stats, Morrow should be regarded as one of the best young starters in the league. Meanwhile, his ERA suggests he is more a back-end of the rotation starter. Morrow saw positive regression in BABIP this season, but his strand rate dropped even lower. Without much to suggest this is a result of a fatal flaw in his game, he is once again a candidate for positive regression. Considering his team as a unit could be on the rise next season, the sleeping giant that has been Brandon Morrow may give the league a rude awakening in 2012.