Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/4/12

Brandon Morrow entered the 2012 season as one of MLB’s ultimate “what if” pitchers. He has owned excellent peripheral statistics throughout his entire career but has struggled mightily with balls in play and with stranding runners, resulting in ERAs much higher than estimators like FIP or xFIP or SIERA would have us expect. Morrow wouldn’t be the first pitcher to prove an exception to DiPS theory — Ricky Nolasco, for example, has followed a similar path. Morrow’s excellent strikeout-inducing stuff — three seasons over 10 K/9 — and his past two seasons with FIPs well below the league average led many to ponder what could happen if he puts it all together.

Oddly enough, entering last night’s start against the Angels, Morrow was excelling in the same facets of the game that typically kill him. He owned a 3.03 ERA despite just 21 strikeouts in 32.2 innings and seven home runs allowed, but a .215 BABIP and exceptional control kept runners off the bases. The Brandon Morrow of old really hadn’t surfaced — the one with all the potential and all the strikeouts — but he was more effective than ever, living off pinpoint control (2.2 BB/9) and his fielders as opposed swings and misses.

Last night against the Angels, Morrow threw a three-hit, eight-strikeout shutout, bringing together the best of both worlds.

Morrow didn’t quite outdo Jered Weaver‘s performance at The Big A just one day before, but he came about as close to an encore as you can get. He was nearly flawless, keeping 11 of 20 balls in play on the ground and not issuing a single free pass. It took just 102 pitches to dispatch the 27 outs, and he threw just 27 balls to 75 strikes. He drew eight swinging strikes — a roughly average number for a starting pitcher throwing 100 pitches — but was able to pound the strike zone without resistance. The Angels took 30 called strikes against Morrow, with 18 of those coming on the first pitch:

It was this ability to draw strike one unopposed which allowed Morrow to dominate. As a result, a whopping 46 of his 102 pitches came in either 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2 counts, covering 21 of the 28 batters he faced. Of these 21 batters, only one reached base. All eight of his strikeouts passed through such a count (even though a few ended in full counts) and the others were dispatched through seven groundouts, two popouts, a double play, and two flyouts.

Success in favorable counts is nothing new for Morrow. Last season, when Morrow recorded just a 4.72 ERA, hitters hit no better than .216 through any count in which there were more strikes than balls. The issue was getting to those counts. Of his 3112 pitches, only 944 came in such counts last season, or 30.3%. Thursday night — Morrow’s first truly dominant performance of the season — was the first time Morrow managed to consistently get into those counts. Just 124 of his first 512 pitches of the season (24.2%) came in these pitchers’ counts. This is largely because hitters have been more than happy to take the first pitch against Morrow — over 80% of the time — and Morrow hadn’t taken advantage with first pitch strikes until Thursday.

Morrow has fantastic secondary pitches, but when batters get ahead in the count, they can take these pitches and wait for the fastball. Even with his excellent velocity, Morrow’s fastball isn’t good enough to blow by hitters every time, particularly in hitters’ counts when they can sit on it with little consequence if they’re wrong. But as we saw on Thursday, when Morrow can work ahead of the count and keep hitters off balance with the full mixture of pitches, he is nearly unhittable. If he can continue to work ahead with a combination of control and pure stuff, we could finally see the total package Morrow’s peripheral numbers have teased us with for years.

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