Relievers are failed starters, as the saying goes, and they’re not necessarily particularly interesting failed starters. Wade Davis was aggressively boring as a starting pitcher before he became one of the best closers in the game. Dellin Betances poked around a few top-100 prospect lists, but he posted a 6.39 ERA in 16 Triple-A starts in 2012. Even Mariano Rivera was once a 25-year-old rookie starter with a 5.51 ERA and a K/BB ratio below two.
Brandon Morrow, though, is a fascinating failed starter. He is a 32-year-old on his fourth big league organization, with about 150 major league innings on his CV since 2013, all with a worse-than-average ERA+ and strikeout rate. But in 13 innings in 2017, Morrow’s struck out 15 against one walk. On Tuesday night, he allowed his first runs of the season after 11 straight scoreless appearances to start his Dodgers career.
The Dodgers have year after year watched their bullpen turn to ash in October, resulting in managers Don Mattingly and Dave Roberts suddenly losing trust in every pitcher except Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen. But even they know better than to get excited about 13 innings of solid first-half relief pitching, because it’s way too early to tell if Morrow’s 2017 numbers are for real, let alone whether they can translate into an effective playoff performance.
But I’m excited about Morrow — not for any rational reason, but because I want Morrow to be good.
In the early days of sabermetrics, Bill James invented a measure called game score to evaluate a pitcher’s start: A pitcher starts out with 50 points and earns points for recording outs, with a bonus for strikeouts, while he loses them by allowing base runners and runs. It’s one of those simple, quick-and-dirty relics from the pre-Moneyball days that’s less informative — you can learn much more just by reading a pitcher’s box score line — than it is an elegant shorthand.
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.
On August 8, 2010, Morrow, then with the Toronto Blue Jays, struck out 17 Rays in a one-hit shutout. He threw 137 pitches, 97 of them for strikes. Morrow threw 81 fastballs, topping out at 97 miles an hour and split between two varieties: a four-seamer and a sinker. Both fastballs came in hard, then looked like God flicked them like a paper football about 15 feet from the plate — the only difference between the two was the direction. Morrow also threw 39 sliders, a hard-breaking, air-churning pitch that generated 14 misses on 27 swings. Four Rays reached: two on walks, one on a Lyle Overbay error, and one on the game’s lone hit: a single with two outs in the ninth inning that bounced off second baseman Aaron Hill and probably should’ve been scored an error too.
The video of that start feels a little like Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game from 1998; the crowd realizes within a couple of innings that they’re watching something special and goes progressively more berserk with each strikeout. Watching that start makes it easy to understand the special talent necessary to get to a game score of 100, and makes it so puzzling that Morrow was never even on Wood’s level.
In 2010, Morrow posted a 93 ERA+ and 1.6 WAR, even with that incredible start mixed in. The next season he led the American League in K/9 ratio, but posted a 90 ERA+ in 179.1 innings, the only time Morrow pitched enough to qualify for an ERA title. In 2012, Morrow twirled three complete-game shutouts and posted a career-best 143 ERA+, in line with both of Scherzer’s Cy Young seasons, but injuries limited him to 124.2 innings.
The 2010 one-hitter against Tampa Bay might have been the single best start of Morrow’s career, and it shows how tantalizing his fastball-slider combination was. It’s why the Mariners picked Morrow fifth overall in 2006 out of the University of California, ahead of Andrew Miller, Kershaw, and Scherzer, and put him in the major league bullpen within a year. That’s when he started to show his two major flaws: walks and injuries.
Morrow walked 7.1 batters per nine innings as a rookie, and even in his best seasons with Toronto, which acquired him for Brandon League in 2009, he walked around 10 percent of the batters he faced. He’s one of 14 pitchers with 100 starts since 2007 and a double-digit walk rate, a list full of guys who used to be good until they couldn’t throw strikes: Jonathan Sánchez, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Francisco Liriano, and others.
Morrow has also lived out the Book of Job in terms of physical ailments: As a high school senior, he was diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that athletes across numerous sports have managed well enough to compete at a world-class level, but still an obstacle. Since then, Morrow has suffered biceps tendinitis, an abdominal strain that kept him out for more than two months in 2012, radial nerve entrapment in his right forearm in 2013, a torn tendon sheath in his index finger in 2014, surgery to remove damaged tissue from his shoulder in 2015, and numerous minor nagging injuries to his forearm and shoulder throughout his career.
Now almost 33 years old, Morrow has returned to the place where he started his big league career, and the normal landing spot for starting pitchers who have big stuff but also have trouble staying healthy. With the Dodgers, pitching out of the pen full-time, Morrow’s scrapped everything but the four-seamer, slider, and a cutter, and his fastball’s ticked up to an average of 97 miles per hour, up more than 3 mph even from what he posted last year, when he pitched in relief for San Diego while battling shoulder fatigue.
To believe in Morrow now, even as a setup guy and not a top-of-the-rotation starter, feels foolhardy. Only a sucker would look at someone with that much damage to his shoulder and that many high-walk-rate seasons and say, “Yes, I believe.” But I’m a sucker for pitchers who show flashes as brilliant as that start in Toronto seven years ago. I don’t know if I believe in the reborn Morrow, who looks for the moment like the extra reliever who could finally put the Dodgers over the top, but I know I definitely want to.