Morrow As A Starter
So, now that the M’s have decided to stretch Morrow out and turn him back into a starter, it’s time to look at what we should expect to see when he gets back to Seattle and joins the rotation. Pitching out of the bullpen is totally different than starting, so it’s not quite as easy as just taking his relief performance and extrapolating that over six or seven innings of work. He’s going to have to pitch differently, and that will have an effect on his results.
First, off, the fastball velocity is going to go down. Right now, his average fastball is 96.3 MPH, but he’s able to throw max effort on every pitch without worrying about stamina. As a starter, he’s going to have to pace himself. Most hard throwers like Morrow lose between 1-3 MPH off their average fastball when they move to the rotation, so Morrow’s going to have to adjust to throwing a 93-95 fastball instead of a 95-97 MPH fastball. As a guy who pitches up in the zone, that extra velocity can make a difference, and he’ll have to realize that trying to blow everyone away with a four seam high fastball isn’t going to work.
Secondly, he’s going to have to reduce the amount of fastballs he throws in general. Right now, about 76% of all of his pitches are fastballs, and that’s just too high. The starters who throw that many fastballs are all sinker ball types (or Vincente Padilla, but he’s not the role model we’re looking for), and since Morrow’s fastball produces flyballs, he’s going to have to reduce the number he throws. This will be especially true against left-handers, where his change up will become a necessary pitch. Fastball/slider pitchers tend to really struggle against lefties, because both pitches move in on LHBs. To get them out with consistency, he’s going to have to trust his change-up and use it far more frequently.
Finally, he’s going to have to improve his command. It’s gotten significantly better than it was last year, but it’s still not good – he throws strikes about as often as Felix does, and I think we all have yelled at Felix to throw more strikes at some point or another. He won’t get the groundballs that Felix does, so that means fewer double plays, and the walks will be more of a problem. His command should improve some just by nature of not throwing as hard, but there needs to be improvement beyond that incremental step forward. Four seam fastball guys with bad command don’t generally become aces.
If he can make these adjustments, he should be able to be a solid #2 or #3 starter. His upside in the rotation is probably along the lines of Matt Cain. Certainly, the M’s have to hope that’s what he turns into, and if he reaches that potential, he’ll have quite a bit more value than he did as a late inning reliever. However, there are risks.
Injuries are obviously a concern. Morrow’s never handled any kind of real workload in his life, and they’re going to have to be very careful to not try and put too many innings on his arm too quickly. Realistically, he probably shouldn’t be allowed to throw more than 50-60 innings or so the rest of the year. If you assume he burns through 15 of those in Tacoma getting stretched out, that only leaves about 3-5 starts in Seattle before the best course of action is to just shut him down.
Bullpen to rotation conversions can work. Chad Billingsley, Adam Wainwright, Kelvim Escobar, Zach Greinke, and Joba Chamberlain all made the move successfully, but they all had significant minor league experience as starters. Morrow may take a little longer to know how to get batters out for six and seven inning stretches, and his arm isn’t as tested over full season of starting as the others were.
Patience and risk management will be key here. Don’t expect Morrow to come up and dominate. There’s a learning curve, but it’s one that the organization will be better off for having him go through.