Closing Time: The ongoing Brandon Morrow conundrum

Scott Pianowski
May 26, 2012

I don't want to be too hard on Brandon Morrow for his Friday night meltdown in Arlington (5 H, 6 R, 3 BB, 0 K; just two outs recorded). A lot of pitchers are going to get knocked around by the Rangers, especially deep in the heart of Texas.

Ron Washington's bunch was actually on a mild cold streak on the road prior to this game, but Arlington cures a lot of ills. When you're deep enough to bat Nelson Cruz (eight RBIs) seventh and Mitch Moreland ninth, you've got some ballclub. This is a place where I'm prepared to sit just about any opposing starter, the park is that dangerous to your pitching ratios.

But what do we do with Morrow going forward? How do we interpret his glaring bias in 2012: his tendency to dominate weak opponents and wilt against strong ones?

First, let's consider the numbers. Here's the tale of the tape for Morrow in 2012:

-- Against a Top 10 scoring club (Rangers, Orioles, Rays twice): 18.2 IP, 24 H, 22 ER, 11 BB, 13 K, 10.61 ERA.

-- Against a club 14th or lower in runs: (Mets, Athletics, Angels, Mariners, Royals, Indians): 43.2 IP, 23 H, 2 ER, 9 BB, 41 K, 0.41 ERA.

To be clear, the fact that Morrow has a bias in this area isn't that surprising. You're allowed to be better against weaker opposition; that's the name of the game. To get a sense of what pitchers generally do against competitive splits in opposition, I looked up eight modern pitchers (four all-time stars, four journeymen) on Baseball-Reference and noted how they fared against teams .500 or better and teams under .500.

(Disclaimer time: this isn't the perfect split for our purposes - some winning teams have mediocre offenses and some losing clubs can really hit. And looking up eight pitchers, an absurdly tiny sample, isn't going to prove much of anything. But it's what I had to work with and what I had time for this morning, and I was just looking for some back-of-envelope math, anyway. Perhaps we'll go deeper into this at a later date)

Nolan Ryan had the lowest ERA change in my envelope sample (I looked up Ryan, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Brad Penny, Homer Bailey, Jeff Suppan and JA Happ). Ryan's ERA was only 11 points higher against winning clubs. Maddux and Glavine were somewhere around a half-run higher, and Clemens pushed up three-quarters of a run.

Happ's split was the highest; when he's up against someone good, his career ERA is 1.33 runs higher. I certainly can't say definitively what any of this means (maybe there's an easy way to cull the current or historical league average, but I'm not sure how). I just wanted some guys to compare against Morrow.

Ah yes, back to Morrow. When he's faced good teams in his career, he's carrying a 4.79 ERA over 332.2 innings. When he's working against the sub-500s, he pushes down to 3.59. It's the second-highest split I've seen of my (almost inconsequential) nine-pitcher sample.

The obvious fly in the Morrow ointment, the reason I've been concerned about him all along, is the jagged division he plays in. I know you're sick of the polka by now, but let's just recite the obvious facts: everyone in the AL East can score (even the Orioles in 2012) and the only pitcher-cushioning park is Catwalk Stadium in Tampa (I hope I don't get beaned for that comment). It's the most obvious thing in the world in a mixed league: avoid this division if you can, and go gang up on the soft seats in the National League. But when we see the raw stuff and upside of someone like Morrow, it can be hard to resist. The sirens are always singing, trying to get us to stray.

Morrow's next turn comes at home against Baltimore, then he'll probably miss the Boston series (depending on how John Farrell handles his staff against an off day). The Jays have two full weeks of interleague play coming in June, so Morrow might be in for a strong push before the All-Star break. But I'm not optimistic he'll be able to keep his ERA under 4 when the in-division offenses come calling more regularly in the final half of the year.

Bottom line, if I were a Morrow owner, I'd sit pat for now, work the schedule, enjoy what could happen next month. But there's no way I'd want to roster Morrow all year, and there's no way I'd want to start him against all opponents, unconditionally. We've seen the downside and the danger to this pitcher (no matter his raw talent), and it's not pretty.

I don't think we need a fire drill over Heath Bell, but we at least need to mention his Friday appearance. The Marlins closer didn't have it against the Giants, consistently falling behind in the count and allowing three solid hits over four batters. Ozzie Guillen wasn't about to let the ballgame get away: he went to the hook after that (sorry, Flounder) and had Steve Cishek clean up the mess (fly out, strikeout, handshake). What started off as an easy save appearance (three-run lead in the ninth) turned into a nail-biting 7-6 victory.

The overall specs with Bell haven't changed all season. He's struggled with control (12 walks) and location, and his strikeout rate has fallen. But you can't write any Bell piece without mentioning his three-year, $27 million contract. The Marlins obviously are going to give Bell a much longer leash than average, given what's invested here. Bell had four saves and two wins over his eight appearances prior to Friday, a run fueled mostly by batted-ball fortune (two walks, four strikeouts).

I've been impressed with Cishek all year. The sidewinder has a 1.31 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, with 21 strikeouts against eight walks over 20.2 innings, and his career ground-ball rate is just under 55 percent. Lefties are hitting .278 against him, something that hadn't been a problem in prior seasons.; the obvious concern with a low arm-slot pitcher is how he handles batters from the opposite side. Bottom line, if you need to hedge against Bell or if you want to find a useful reliever from this club and saves aren't the driving factor, I'll sign off on Cishek over Edward Mujica.

The Marlins are now 12-9 at their new aquarium, for what it's worth. And while we're a long way from drawing any hard conclusions about the playability of this yard, it's fascinating to note that Marlins Park currently has the highest run factor in 2012 (hat tip to my buddy Dalton Del Don). Power is getting a minor tax in the park, but hits and doubles are above average, and triples are off the chart. Take whatever you want from a 21-game sample — just make sure you don't fall into the trap of assuming this is a pitcher's haven, which was the common theme two months ago.

It was business as usual with the Rays and Red Sox, two teams that have never really liked each other. Let the good times and the bean balls roll. Jon Lester, still overrated (7 R, 3 HR; he now carries a 4.72 ERA and 1.36 WHIP). Fernando Rodney, still untouchable (15 saves, 0.38 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, unlimited arrows). B.J. Upton has been something since coming off the DL (.304, 11 steals), Carlos Pena (homer, walk) is fitting in nicely as Tampa's leadoff man, and working-class hero Elliot Johnson (homer) continues to do good things at the bottom of the order. You'll want to start your borderline Rays (like Pena and Johnson) against scuffling Clay Buchholz on Sunday; anything can happen on the field, but on paper this is a premium matchup.

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see Ryan Dempster on a real team. Dempster was excellent once again Friday (7 IP, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K), but had to settle for a 1-0 loss against Pittsburgh. He now has a 2.14 ERA and the Cubs are 1-7 in his eight turns; they've giving him all of 18 runs of support. There's a lot left in his tank at age 35, and he's already sold his Chicago-area house; a trade is very likely later this year.

A.J. Burnett picked up the Pittsburgh win and deserves some respect. Sure, the Cardinals tarred and feathered him for 12 runs in early May. In Burnett's other six turns, he's only given up six eight runs (along with 11 walks and 37 strikeouts). He can help us in a mixed league. Burnett is at home against Cincinnati next week.