Wednesday, facing the Red Sox, Blue Jays starter Brandon Morrow got throttled. He allowed eight runs on eight hits in 4-1/3 innings, raising his season ERA to 5.12. That puts him right in between Bronson Arroyo and Brad Penny, which is bad.
Welcome to the Brandon Morrow Absurdity, where a guy can give up a ton of runs despite striking out a quarter of the batters he faces. This has been going on for two seasons, now. Since arriving in Toronto, Morrow has posted a 4.81 ERA and a strikeout rate of 27.3 percent. That ERA ranks 106th out of 128 starting pitchers. That strikeout rate ranks first. Morrow has punched out a greater rate of hitters than any other starter, and he's posted a worse ERA than Jeff Francis.
In other words, Morrow's ERA hasn't matched his peripherals. It's not like his walks or home runs have been out of control. FanGraphs keeps track of a handy stat, here. FanGraphs is the home of FIP, which is a stat that calculates what a pitcher's ERA "ought to be" based on his strikeouts, walks and home runs. Since 2010, Morrow has posted the same FIP as Jon Lester. The difference between his FIP and ERA has been the biggest in baseball.
Now, ordinarily, when we see ERA and peripheral disagreement, we write it off to luck or unsustainability. We don't put too much stock in it. But with Morrow, this hasn't been going on for one season. This has been going on for two seasons, and some people are losing their patience. Some people believe there's something wrong with Morrow that's causing this inequality.
And many of those people have focused on Morrow's pitching with runners on base. Just check out the comments on this FanGraphs post. A few excerpts:
He must have shortcomings/mechanical flaws in his stretch or he starts breaking down mentally after allowing men on. Either way, its not something which will just correct itself; he (and the Jays) are going to have to figure out why he falls apart in those situations.
And he is clearly less effective from the stretch, as mentioned above. It might be fixable, but it has also been a problem for 300 Innings now. His delivery hides the ball quite a bit, so maybe the less deceptive motion from the stretch hurts him?
Morrow is terrible with runners on. I wish I could find his BABIP with runners on; It probably would be extremely high. Not only does he lose deception out of the stretch, but also his location. He loves to groove fastballs down the middle.
It makes some sense. As a Blue Jay, Morrow has allowed a .216 average and a .331 slugging percentage with the bases empty. With runners on, those numbers have risen to .284 and .477, and with runners in scoring position, they've risen more to .305 and .498. Based on that evidence, it certainly looks like Morrow has been falling apart when runners have gotten on base, which would explain the ERA.
It's just that, when you dig deeper, that explanation is unsatisfactory. I'll explain with numbers spanning the 2010-2011 seasons.
Bases Empty: 27.3%
Runners On: 27.4%
Bases Empty: 10.2%
Runners On: 8.8%
Bases Empty: 7.5%
Runners On: 10.1%
Morrow's home runs have gone up with men on, but only by a little bit, and not by an extraordinary degree. And one notes that the strikeouts and walks have not declined. If Morrow were truly falling apart with runners on base, we wouldn't expect him to maintain his strikeout and walk rates. We'd expect them to be much worse.
Let's just get to the punchline:
Batting Average on Balls in Play
Bases Empty: .293
Runners On: .367
Line Drive Rate
Bases Empty: 21.8%
Runners On: 19.1%
Morrow has allowed a pretty average BABIP with the bases empty. He's allowed the second-worst BABIP with runners on, and the absolute worse BABIP with runners in scoring position, all without a corresponding increase in line drives.
What does it all point to? That wholly unsatisfying yet frequently accurate conclusion that what we're seeing is pretty much unsustainable noise. Given what position players have done on the mound, you can spare me the argument that Morrow has been up there throwing meatballs at the wrong times. The evidence suggests that it's just been bad luck, and even though it seems weird that bad luck might carry over two seasons, it carries over one season often enough, so why should a second season be that weird? Sometimes these things just need more time to even out. That doesn't mean we need to construct an alternate explanation.
Maybe I'm wrong about all this, but the probability is on my side. Brandon Morrow is a 27-year-old righty with a career 95 ERA+, but Brandon Morrow is also most likely one of the better starting pitchers in the league.