It’s common practice for teams with a strong chance of going deep in the playoffs to add an extra piece to their bullpen. That was evidenced in last year’s World Series when both teams leaned on the addition of relief aces to get there. Sometimes the addition to the bullpen is a noteworthy one. A year ago the Cubs were on pace for 100 wins and added Aroldis Chapman to their bullpen to give an extra push when the postseason arrived; the Indians did something similar by trading for Andrew Miller. Other times though, the upgrades are much more subtle, like the Dodgers signing Brandon Morrow to a minor league deal before the season began.
Brandon Morrow spent his 2016 season recovering from shoulder surgery he underwent at the tail end of 2015. Because he was still recovering from injury, he recorded just 16 innings in the big leagues last season. He posted a 1.69 ERA, but his peripherals weren’t quite as nice. He only struck out batters at an 11.8 percent rate while walking them 4.4 percent of the time. That strikeout rate is poor compared to both league average among relievers (22.7 percent) and his career average (23.9 percent). The velocity on his pitches wasn’t nearly at the elite level we’ve seen this season either. Perhaps that was a direct result of an injury to such a crucial part of the arm, but the fact remains that he wasn’t all that impressive.
The Dodgers signed Morrow to a minor league deal in the winter, taking a chance on a post post post-hype prospect they could plug into a bullpen that was full of uncertainty beyond Kenley Jansen. Morrow was a lottery ticket back in January when he signed with Los Angeles, and the Dodgers have hit the jackpot. His velocity on all pitches has risen from 2016 to 2017, and his tough-to-discern breaking ball has absolutely disgusting movement at a velocity similar to the fastball of many pitchers around the league.
Average Pitch Velocity
The velocity has certainly been an improvement for Morrow during the 2017 season. Perhaps this raises some eyebrows. I mean, how does a guy add three whole ticks to his fastball velocity? Well, it seems like his full recovery from the injury helped raise his stuff back to the level it was before the injury. It was never this good, but he was also starting rather than relieving. Taking the context into account, it’s not all that surprising that Morrow is often firing triple digits in relief.
It’s not pure velocity that makes Morrow so nasty though. His breaking ball is so disgusting that Brooks Baseball isn’t quite sure how to classify it. At times he gets the cutter above 90 miles per hour with mostly horizontal movement. He has a slider a tick or two slower that has more depth to it. On top of those high velocity, heavy movement pitches Morrow has a curveball that can reach the upper 80s in velocity. Whether the slider and the curveball are the same pitch or not is uncertain, but what is certain is that his breaking pitches are pure filth.
Whiffs per Swing
Morrow has seen huge increases in the bats he’s missed from 2016 to 2017 on every pitch he throws. His ability to miss bats is both indicative of his nasty stuff and a huge reason why he can have success in the bullpen. Those incredible whiff per swing numbers have helped Morrow post a ridiculous 17.5 percent swinging strike rate this season.
So he’s got the stuff, but that doesn’t always mean a pitcher will see success. In order to handle a role as a late-inning reliever for the best team in baseball, Morrow will have to show control and limit hard contact. He’s going to get the whiffs, but he isn’t going to strike everybody out. So far this season he’s done well in that regard, walking batters at just a 4.4 percent rate while allowing just a .157 batting average against. If you want to get into the even grittier, predictive stats Morrow has a .146 TAv against and 2.38 DRA. That DRA is better than flashy backend guys like Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, and he’s just a hair behind Wade Davis’ DRA of 2.24.
Morrow has been a revelation for the Dodgers this season, but they have yet to consistently use him in high leverage situations. It was no secret that they were searching for a right-handed setup man at the deadline, but they came up empty. If they just look inwardly to Morrow they have the perfect fit. They would be wise to consistently give him those opportunities now, so he can be relied on when the Dodgers start playing postseason games.
The Dodgers are playing historically great baseball right now. They added Yu Darvish at the deadline. Their one weakness is seemingly that they lack a setup man and a dominant righty in the bullpen. That weakness could easily be solved by putting Morrow and his triple digit heat into that late inning role. The rich just keep getting richer, it seems.