The whole thing with early-season statistics is looking for dramatic changes. We're not so interested in the more subtle changes, or at least we shouldn't be, because subtle changes might just be insignificant noise, and probably are. More dramatic changes are more likely to be meaningful. They're not guaranteed to be meaningful, but the bigger the change, the lesser the odds that you aren't looking at something real. And to trim this short, I'm not sure there's a player whose statistics have changed more than Brandon Morrow's.
Maybe you've noticed and maybe you haven't. Consider Brandon Morrow and think about your impression of him as a pitcher. I'm guessing your brain will hit on the following keywords: velocity, strikeouts, wild, electric, potential. Maybe "diabetes". Morrow's long been a guy who's teased with his talent, reaching the high-90s with his heater and breaking off enough secondary stuff to occasionally look like a dominant ace. Morrow's long looked like he could be an ace. He's never been one for more than a handful of innings.
Morrow started 30 games for the Blue Jays in 2011. Out of all starters who threw at least 100 innings, his ERA ranked 110th out of 137. However, his FIP ranked 46th, and his xFIP ranked 28th. His xFIP put him in the company of guys like Michael Pineda and Mat Latos. While Morrow walked an above-average number of hitters, his great strength was his strikeouts.
Last season, Brandon Morrow struck out the highest rate of opposing batters of any starter in the American League. Overall, he was between Tommy Hanson and Cliff Lee, but in the AL, he beat Justin Verlander's strikeout rate. He beat Michael Pineda's strikeout rate. He beat David Price's strikeout rate. He beat everybody's strikeout rate, in the American League. When you generate as many strikeouts as Morrow did, you have obvious talent, and people will expect you to do great things.
That Brandon Morrow - the Brandon Morrow we saw in 2011 and in seasons previous - well, I don't know where he went. You'd think that 2011 Brandon Morrow would be in need of some simple fine-tuning. You'd think that his early numbers in 2012 would look a lot like his numbers from 2011. You should stop making presumptions, because they're making you look foolish.
Morrow's started just four games so far this year. So, again, caveats. But over those four games, spanning just over 26 innings, Morrow's whiffed 12 batters. Last August 17, in a start against the Mariners, Morrow whiffed 12 batters. On August 23, 2010, Morrow whiffed 12 batters. On August 8, 2010, Morrow whiffed 17 batters. Brandon Morrow presently has approximately the same strikeout rate as Clayton Richard and Lucas Harrell. He has a lower strikeout rate than Barry Zito.
And it's not just the strikeouts - it's also the contact, the lack of which leads to strikeouts. A year ago, a quarter of all swings against Morrow pitches missed the ball completely. He had the same contact rate in 2011 as he had in 2010, and it was among the very lowest contact rates for any starter in the game. In 2012, Morrow's contact rate is rubbing shoulders with Vance Worley's contact rate, and Jeremy Guthrie's contact rate. Those are not low-contact starting pitchers.
Here, let's make this really simple. Brandon Morrow 2011 vs. Brandon Morrow 2012:
Down from 9 percent to 8 percent
Down from 26 percent to 11 percent
Up from 75 percent to 85 percent
Up from 36 percent to 48 percent
I hadn't yet mentioned that last one, and that might be the key. Morrow used to be a pretty extreme fly-ball pitcher. In the early going now, he's kept nearly half the balls in play on the ground. This isn't an extreme groundball rate he's posting, but it's an extreme groundball rate for Brandon Morrow.
Morrow came away from his 2011 season disappointed, and I think the Blue Jays felt the same way. Morrow didn't want to be an inefficient strikeout machine anymore; to put it in common terms, Morrow wanted to evolve from being a thrower to being a pitcher. So that was his mission entering camp. Morrow wanted to generate quicker outs, and he wanted to expand his repertoire so he wasn't mostly just fastball/slider.
Morrow all but abandoned his slider in camp, working on his changeup and curveball. He made an effort to work lower in the zone. This has carried over into the season. According to Brooks Baseball, his curveball use is up slightly, and his changeup use is up significantly, from 4 percent to 14 percent. And according to PITCHfx data, he has been working lower in the zone. This is going to be difficult to explain in words and the dividing points are arbitrary, but a year ago, 49 percent of Morrow's pitches arrived below 30 inches above the ground, and 29 percent of his pitches arrived below 24 inches above the ground. So far this year, those rates are 56 percent and 37 percent. Morrow's overall average pitch in 2012 has been two-and-a-half inches lower than his overall average pitch in 2011.
So what we have here is Brandon Morrow pitching like a different Brandon Morrow. Of course, the results haven't been particularly good - his strikeouts are too close to his walks, and he's already allowed seven dingers. But one figures Morrow won't get frustrated yet, as he's still trying to polish his new approach. And if he sticks with this new approach, Morrow could be a whole new pitcher. Maybe a better pitcher than he was, depending on a few things. Maybe a worse pitcher than he was, depending on how you interpret his old peripherals. But a new pitcher. That isn't uninteresting.