Although the Cubs haven’t had much positional consistency at closer over the past several years, they have had some pretty big names take the ball in the ninth – Wade Davis, Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, to name a few.
And while each of them experienced some significant success with the Cubs, every single one of them gave us heartburn at one point or another.
Even “Cyborg” Wade Davis wasn’t automatic every time. He almost always got the job done, yes, but after his scoreless streak ended in the middle of May last season, he finished the year with a 3.27 ERA (4.17 FIP) and a 12.9% walk rate (5.01 BB/9). It never quite felt automatic. In fact, he was at 4.4 batters faced per inning from May 24 onward (4.2 for the season). We’ll call that something of a heartburn metric.
In a lot of ways, the relatively wild nature of Wade Davis (command-wise, because again, the guy did usually get it done), is what led to the Cubs tapping Brandon Morrow as their new closer over the offseason. Morrow had built up a reputation as a strike thrower since becoming a full-time reliever in 2016, and that’s precisely what the Cubs bullpen needed.
So far, Morrow’s command hasn’t quite been as good as advertised (5 walks against 50 batters faced equals 10%), but the overall experience has been fantastic, and it has mostly felt like the game will end in a boring manner when he enters the game.
Let’s start with last night.
After giving up an early lead on a couple of doubles and a homer, the Cubs battled back throughout the game to give their closer a razor thin margin for error in the ninth. But instead of raising our blood pressure with base runners, Brandon Morrow needed just five pitches – four of which fell in for strikes – to get through three batters and close out the game about as quickly as anyone could.
It was so refreshing.
There was no late-inning drama. No baserunners, wild pitches, unnecessary walks, go-ahead runs at the plate. Nothing. Five pitches, four strikes, three outs. That’s it. And that’s how Morrow has shined.
And if you’ve noticed that as a trend, you’re not mistaken. Compared to Wade Davis’ 4.2 batters faced per inning for the season (4.4 after his ridiculous start), Morrow is facing just 3.8 batters per inning. That’s roughly half a batter per inning less – and, again, this is before his walk rate normalizes, which I’m very confident it will.
Indeed, even despite Morrow’s 10.0% walk rate, he’s doing a lot of stuff really well. For example, he’s got a 55.9% groundball rate to start the year, which is over 15 percentage points higher than what Wade Davis worked with last season (40.5%). Ground balls are especially important for closers and quick, stress-less outings because more ground balls means more double plays, and fewer extra-base hits in tight games.
On top of that – and perhaps my favorite stat of all – Morrow has allowed just a 20.6% fly ball rate this season, which ranks 16th in MLB and 9th in MLB. With such a low fly ball rate, Morrow is severely limiting the chances for maximum damage. So even as his HR/FB ratio normalizes (he’s going to give one up sooner or later), his overall home run rate could stay quite low
And then there’s the elevated infield fly ball rate (14.3%), which is something every pitcher wants – not only are infield fly balls the most harmless type of balls in play, a lot of them generally indicates difficulty in squaring up pitches (especially a good four-seamer like Morrow’s). This is not something new for Morrow. In fact, I think it’s sort of his thing. Last season, Morrow’s infield fly ball rate was a sky-high 20.6%, which would have ranked 3rd best in MLB (sandwiched between Kenley Jansen and Dellin Betances) if he had enough innings to qualify.
When 70.2% of the balls in play are either on the ground or infield pop-ups, you’re going to have efficient outings, my friends.
Now, it’s not all 100% good stuff so far. As I mentioned, his walk rate is higher than you’d like (but, again, we’re talking about five walks), his 22.0% strikeout rate isn’t quite as high as it was last year, and somehow he’s allowed a 50% hard-hit rate. But even with those rates in mind, he’s still got a well above average 23.5% soft-hit rate, a well below average .200 batting average against, and a 2.62 FIP, which would’ve been a top-20 mark among all qualified relievers last season.
So overall, the Brandon Morrow experience has been good. Very good. Great, even! And I wouldn’t be surprised if it only got better.