The Dodgers' hard-throwing setup man has always flashed signs of brilliance. Finally healthy, he's now become the dominant pitcher he was supposed to be.
Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Look up and down the rosters of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros and you'll find plenty of great players with great stories and big personalities, offering all kinds of reasons for a neutral fan to want to seem them lifting the Commissioner's Trophy as World Series champs. The peerless Clayton Kershaw finally burying his unfair playoff reputation would be a beautiful thing to watch. So too would watching the incredible Jose Altuve ascend into superstardom before our very eyes—if he hasn't done that already. Watching Yasiel Puig bound around victorious would be tremendous. Or seeing Justin Verlander finally winning the title that eluded him for 13 seasons in Detroit.
For the baseball hipster, though, I think there's one name that stands above the others for his ability to produce vicarious joy: Brandon Morrow.
Hard to believe as it is, it's now been 11 years since Seattle took the UC Berkeley hurler with the effortless velocity and classic pitcher's frame with the fifth pick in the 2006 draft. It's been so long that the player taken five spots later, with whom Morrow would be inextricably linked early on in his career, is all but already out of baseball. Tim Lincecum was the local kid, a long-haired University of Washington star the Mariners passed on and almost instantly regretted. Lincecum blasted through the minor leagues, making 24 starts for the Giants in 2007, the year after he was drafted, then won the first of back-to-back Cy Young awards in 2008.
Morrow's talent was undeniable, too. But the local kid who made so good so fast after being bypassed by the Mariners cast an awfully long shadow.
And it was in that shadow that Morrow, with a lot of help from a dysfunctional M's organization, floundered. Teams don't use the fifth overall pick in the draft on guys who they expect to be relievers, but after just 13 minor league innings, that's where Morrow found himself. He spent the entire 2007 season with the Mariners, pitching out of the bullpen—and wowing plenty of late night east coast MLB.tv viewers with his electric stuff and outrageously under-developed command. He'd walk 50 batters in just 63.1 innings that year, but the stuff was so good that he could make it work. The problem was that he had far too much potential to be consigned to a relief role so early in his career. He needed to start, the Mariners needed to let him, yet for a variety of reasons—many outlined in a finger-pointing 2009 piece by Ryan Divish of the Tacoma News Tribune—that simply never happened.
Part of the reasoning for that was concern about injuries he'd suffered, as well as the fact that Morrow is a Type-1 diabetic and requires the use of an insulin pump—and monitoring of his blood sugar levels between innings when he pitches (as he explained to Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet in 2014)—but Divish called those "just periphery excuses."
"It was inconsistent developmentally," Morrow said of his time with the Mariners this week, speaking to Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times. "It was awesome not spending any time in the minor leagues and making the team in the first spring training, but long term, if you think the kid you draft fifth overall is going to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues, you probably want to handle that a little better. But I'm not going to throw anyone under the bus."
By the end of the 2009 season, the Mariners were ready to move on. And the Toronto Blue Jays, fresh off firing GM J.P. Ricciardi, then trading franchise icon Roy Halladay to Philadelphia, had a need for starting pitching and a lack of urgency at the start of a small-scale rebuild that allowed them to take on a project. Morrow was a perfect fit. The Jays acquired him for closer Brandon League and a lottery ticket prospect named Johermyn Chavez, and from day one it was clear they were going to take the reins off the 24-year-old.
It almost paid off.
Morrow's numbers weren't great in his first two seasons with the Blue Jays. FIP loved him, as did FanGraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement, because of his huge (for the time) strikeout numbers, but his ERAs of 4.49 and 4.72 left a lot to be desired. Still, the Blue Jays liked what they saw enough to give him a three-year, $20 million extension in January 2012, following his second season with the club. It was hard to blame them after the flashes of utter dominance he'd shown, including one particular August 2010 performance that Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote about this summer:
It's possible to have a game score of 100 or higher, but only barely — it's been done just seven times since 2000, and it takes a special kind of pitcher to pull it off. Max Scherzer's done it twice, most recently in 2015 with his record-tying 17-strikeout no-hitter. Clayton Kershaw's 15-strikeout no-hitter in 2014 is on the list, as well as perfect games by Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and Matt Cain, who was on a Hall of Fame pace through age 27 before persistent elbow and hamstring injuries torpedoed his career. Curt Schilling, who should be in the Hall based on the numbers, reached 100 with a 17-strikeout outing in 2002.
The seventh outing belongs to Morrow, and it haunts my dreams.
Morrow's 17-strikeout gem, in which he had a no-hitter somewhat dubiously broken up with two outs in the ninth inning, was a jaw-dropping taste of what he was capable of. As other pitchers drafted behind him began emerging into true greats of the game—first Lincecum, then Kershaw (taken 7th overall), and Scherzer (11th)—there was a feeling, at the very least in Toronto, that he could get there, too. If only he could stay healthy.
We all know what happens next. Morrow was a quiet, thoughtful, intelligent pitcher with an incredible gift. It was impossible not to root for him and see how it could all work so perfectly once everything finally clicked. And it was impossible not to get frustrated along with him. Especially as, slowly but surely, that gift began to betray him.
The 2012 season was, before the current one, the best of his career. He dialed back the velocity a hair, trading strikeouts for better command, and he thrived. His 8.1 percent walk rate, though merely average, was the best of his career to that point. He had enough pure stuff to overwhelm batters when he needed to, but often didn't need to. His FIP stayed steady at 3.65 (it had been 3.64 the year before), but his ERA dropped to a sparkling 2.96. It felt like, finally, in his fifth season in the big leagues, he had started to arrive.
Or it would have, if he'd managed to throw more than 124.2 innings in just 21 starts, due to a mid-season oblique strain. The hope at the time was that, because it at least wasn't elbow or shoulder trouble, Morrow could bounce back. And, in part because of that thought, in part because of a restless fan base ready to see the fruits of what felt like a perpetual rebuild, and in part because of the emergence of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie, and others, GM Alex Anthopoulos went all in. During the winter between 2012 and 2013, the Blue Jays made a massive deal with the Miami Marlins, bringing in Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Emilio Bonifacio. They signed Melky Cabrera, fresh off an incredible year with the Giants (and a subsequent PED suspension). They traded for NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. They were ready to take the American League by storm.
Obviously that didn't happen. But what sometimes gets lost in the story of that utter failure of a season, as Reyes, Johnson, Dickey, and Cabrera all came far worse than advertised, was what happened to Morrow—the young star-in-the-making who began the season lined up second in the Jays' rotation. He'd make just 10 starts that season, and only 6 the next. Say the words "radial nerve entrapment" or "torn tendon sheath" to a (pre-2015) Blue Jays fan and just watch them cringe.
Morrow's strikeout totals sagged in 2013, and over those 10 starts his ERA ballooned to 5.63. In 2014 it got worse, and the command problems that plagued him early on in his career resurfaced. The Blue Jays declined a $10 million contract option for 2015 and he landed in San Diego—a virtual dumping ground for Californian pitchers hoping for unlikely comebacks.
With the Padres in 2016, for the first time since his rookie year with the Mariners, Morrow didn't start a single game in the big leagues. Part of that was because he missed most of the year with "shoulder fatigue," but another part was that, all those years later, he'd finally been made a full-on reliever. He quietly put up 1.69 ERA over 16 relief innings at the end of the season, but he struck out only eight.
That could have been the end of Brandon Morrow. His could have been a tale of unique and stupefying talent that, through mismanagement, injury, and bad luck, could never quite be harnessed. It's a tale that's fairly common among pitchers, but few we get to see so close or for so long, through such tantalizing ups and frustrating downs. And far, far fewer who could ever be capable of what he did on that August Sunday in 2010.
But, of course, that wasn't the end.
"Elite stuff," is what Anthopoulos, now an assistant GM for the Dodgers, said about Morrow in speaking to Mark Whicker of the OC Register earlier this summer. And, perhaps more importantly, he added that "Every time he had a setback, he managed to get back to that."
Morrow is certainly back to it now. The Dodgers, surely with plenty of input from the loquacious Anthopoulos, took a chance on Morrow, signing him to a minor league deal in January. He's been worth every penny and many, many more.
Over the course of 45 regular-season appearances, and 43.2 innings, Morrow struck out 50 and walked just nine. Because he's only working in short bursts, he's throwing harder than ever, with a fastball that averaged 97.7 mph during the regular season. As the club's setup man, he's become a crucial piece in the Dodgers' bullpen, bridging the gap between the team's starting pitchers and their incredible closer, Kenley Jansen. He's been virtually unhittable—and has carried that into the playoffs, where so far he's struck out eight and walked just one over 8.1 innings, appearing in seven of the Dodgers' eight playoff games. He has, in other words, become the pitcher that Brandon Morrow was always supposed to be.
There will be moments over the next two weeks where the fate of the World Series will be in Brandon Morrow's hands. After all he's been through to get here, how can that not make you smile?