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Exercising Caution With Brandon Morrow

Right-hander Brandon Morrow has been a fantasy sleeper since transitioning to the starting rotation full-time in 2010. He’s always been a guy with electric stuff, huge strikeout rates and solid FIPs/SIERAs — but his ERA has never seemingly lived up to the billing due to low strand rates and poor command. For many owners, he became the quintessential fantasy tease the past few years: a guy with enormous potential who always disappointed in the end.

As they say…

Fool me once — 4.49 ERA in 2010 — shame on you.
Fool me twice — 4.72 ERA in 2011 — shame on me.

Fool me three times … well, that wasn’t going to happen for many owners. Consecutive years of disappointment proved too much. In fact, several people I know blacklisted Morrow and simply refused to draft him for the 2012 season.

However, those fantasy owners who drafted the right-hander last year and trusted Morrow would finally deliver on his potential were rewarded. He compiled a 2.96 ERA, cut his walk rate to a career-best 2.96 BB/9, and posted the tenth-best WHIP (1.11) among all starters who threw at least 100 innings. Injuries held him back from a top-tier fantasy season, but the message came through loud and clear: Brandon Morrow has finally arrived.

But perhaps that was the wrong message to hear.

In many ways, what we saw last year was a slightly different version of Brandon Morrow. His fastball dropped in velocity by almost a mile per hour. His swinging-strike rate dropped to 9.0%, which was by far the lowest mark of his career. And as noted above, his 2.96 BB/9 walk rate was a career best. It’s decreased for three-consecutive seasons. He seemingly has committed himself to sacrificing velocity and strikeouts for better command.

This isn’t to say occasionally taking the foot off the gas pedal to regain command of the vehicle is inherently bad. It obviously paid dividends last year with a 2.96 ERA, and he held opposing hitters to a mere .213 batting average. There are, however, three main reasons owners should remain cautious and not overspend on Morrow, expecting similar results.

(1) The young man who vastly underperformed compared to his FIP and SIERA suddenly dramatically prevented far more runs than expected.

2010 4.49 3.16 3.31
2011 4.72 3.64 3.31
2012 2.96 3.65 3.91

According to FIP and SIERA (more so the latter than the former), Morrow actually had the worst season of his Blue Jays’ career in 2012. His K/BB ratio actually lowered from 2.94 K/BB in 2011 to 2.63 K/BB. Certainly not a dramatic drop, but the lack of improvement in that regard suggests his plunging ERA was not supported by better peripherals. He also benefited from a .252 BABIP, and although I hesitate to attribute that wholly to luck, the right-hander is predominantly a fly-ball pitcher and the Blue Jays’ outfield isn’t anything special defensively.

(2) Injuries. Morrow has struggled with injuries throughout his career. Last year, it was a strained oblique. The year before, it was forearm inflammation. He has only thrown more than 150 innings once in his career. Predicting injuries for pitchers is always a delicate and imprecise dance, but Morrow has never been a paragon of durability.

(3) He may no longer be a source of elite strikeout totals. His 7.80 K/9 strikeout rate ranked 50th among starters who threw at least 100 innings in 2012. That’s nothing to get excited about anymore. Even Joe Blanton posted a higher strikeout rate than Morrow last year.

Essentially, if his ERA increases next year and more closely mirrors last year’s SIERA, FIP and xFIP without an increase in strikeouts, he’s nothing more than a mediocre starting option in most fantasy formats. Add in the fact that Morrow has been prone to injury throughout his big-league career, and fantasy owners should tread cautiously on draft day to ensure they don’t overpay for the right-hander based upon his 2012 ERA and past reputation as a prime sleeper candidate.

If the strikeouts return and he can maintain his lower walk rate, the previous paragraph becomes moot. He would then be a potential top-20 starter with the standard injury-concern caveat. I’m just not sold the strikeouts will return to pre-2012 levels, so I hesitate to value Morrow as highly as some fantasy owners may on draft day.

Overall, Brandon Morrow remains a mid-tier fantasy option and absolutely has a home in fantasy rotations. Just be careful not to overvalue him and view last season as an outgrowth of his previous struggles. He was a different pitcher last year. Owners should value him based upon those numbers.