Morrow Takes Command Of Draft Stock

They weren’™t your typical All-America numbers, that’™s for sure. Brandon Morrow entered 2006 with a career 1-4, 7.57 record with 39 walks in 55 innings. And for that scouting directors named him a third-team preseason All-American before his junior season at California.

Well, that’™s not true. The high expectations had nothing to do with his stats, and everything to do with his stuff.

Morrow was Nuke Laloosh, Mark Wohlers, Jason Neighborgall, Randy Johnson. He was that rare enigma with the mitt-popping fastball and the eye-popping secondary stuff and no idea how to harness his limitless talent.

But with his season winding down, the California junior was on the verge of converting his third-team preseason honors into first-team postseason accolades–and an almost certain spot among the top five or 10 picks of the upcoming draft. With one start remaining in his season against Arizona State, Morrow was 7-3, 1.74 with 96 strikeouts and just 36 walks in 93 innings. This just a year after he walked 20 in 25 innings while posting a 9.36 ERA.

All About Velocity

How did Morrow turn it around so drastically in one season’™s time? It was a simple matter of getting used to his newfound superhuman abilities.

“I never really struggled with control until I started throwing a lot harder,” Morrow said.

A velocity spike was inevitable for the long, skinny righthander. He has put on weight since he arrived at Cal from Rancho Cotate High in Rohnert Park, Calif., but still has room to fill out his 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame. That spike occurred just before the start of his 2005 sophomore season. Up until that point, Morrow’™s fastball consistently sat in the high 80s and low 90s, sporadically touching 94. Then he hit 96 as the season began. He hit 97 during the second weekend of the year. He hit 99 by the third weekend against Long Beach State, and from then on his velocity sat in the 96-98 range and touched 99 fairly often.

“He’™s starting to physically mature, getting stronger,” Cal pitching coach Dan Hubbs said. “We thought he’™d throw harder. Did we think he’™d throw 99? I don’™t think anyone ever thinks someone’™s going to throw 99.”

Morrow’™s increased arm strength caused all of his pitches to become that much more electric, and he struggled to locate them. It also caused the muscles in the back of his shoulder to hurt, so Cal shut him down in the second half of the season with tendinitis. Morrow worked on strengthening his shoulder and got himself ready to pitch in the Cape Cod League in the summer.

Morrow worked as a closer for Yarmouth-Dennis, a role that he said gave him the opportunity to attack hitters with his best stuff and rebuild his confidence. He posted three saves and a 1.84 ERA with 24 strikeouts and nine walks in 15 innings and was named the No. 5 prospect in the talent-laden league.

“I think a big part of it was him getting the ball consistently over the strike zone, and the Cape played a part in that,” Hubbs said. “I think at times he fell into the trap of pitching away from contact with aluminum, but on the Cape there’™s no fear of that. It doesn’™t matter how good the hitters are–if you’™re throwing 99 mph, let’™s go get ‘˜em. He took that mentality to aluminum.”

There were a couple of other changes Morrow made before his junior season began. He cleaned up his delivery by staying taller and moving his release point further out in front. That adjustment helped him improve his secondary stuff.

Before this season, Morrow said he was essentially a fastball-splitter pitcher. The split was a devastating pitch when it was on, but hitters knew it was not going to be a strike so they could sit on his fastball. So in the offseason he focused on developing his 84 mph changeup and his hard breaking ball (“I don’™t know what people are calling it, I just throw it hard,” Morrow said). He learned to throw both offspeed pitches for strikes and entered the season as a confident pitcher with four average or better pitches.

Will He Start Or Will He Close?

Morrow’™s swagger was on display from his first pitch of the 2006 season against UC Irvine: a 99 mph fastball. He went on to strike out 12 in 6 1/3 hitless innings in his season debut. Naturally, the baseball world took notice of Morrow’™s emergence, although not everyone was sold on the idea of Morrow as a big league starter-in-waiting.

“Early in the year, his stuff was off the charts, but deception is an issue because he lacks it,” one opposing pitching coach said. “He’™s a closer for me (in pro ball), but does he have the moxie to close?”

Morrow admitted he would like to make intimidation a bigger part of his game and said he’™s fine with being either a closer or a starter down the road. He certainly showed some savvy navigating the perilous trail of Friday nights in the Pac-10, which pitted Morrow against potential first-rounders such as Oregon State’™s Dallas Buck, Southern California’™s Ian Kennedy, Washington’™s Tim Lincecum and Stanford’™s Greg Reynolds. It was in a recent 3-2 loss to Reynolds that Morrow demonstrated just how far he’™s come as a pitcher. Morrow threw just 105 pitches while striking out 11 and walking none in a complete game. He has worked hard to become a more efficient, intelligent pitcher–and it shows. Hubbs said Morrow is always asking what the coaches know about opposing hitters.

“I tell him, ‘˜What we hear on these guys doesn’™t necessarily apply to you. There’™s no scouting report for how hitters respond to your stuff,’™ ” Hubbs said. “Nobody throws like him.”

And that is why scouts, crosscheckers and scouting directors have flocked to see him. Morrow has apparently satisfied most concerns about his Type I diabetes, which he has learned how to deal with over the last three-plus years since he was diagnosed. He monitors his blood sugar between innings and wears a computerized pump hooked to his skin near his stomach, giving him a constant supply of insulin.

As for the common criticism that Morrow’™s high three-quarters arm slot lacks deception and his fastball lacks movement, Hubbs dismisses it.

“He gets a lot of swing and misses, even with aluminum,” Hubbs said. “If it’™s people thinking he needs the ball to move anywhere–if he’™s down in the zone and it’™s 99, it doesn’™t really matter.

“The thing about Brandon, if you were watching him on the side you’™d think he was throwing 86, then on the gun it’™s 98. That’™s a good compliment that he can be that fluid and easy–the ball comes out of his hand that well.”

And now that he knows where the ball is going when it leaves his hand, Morrow is no longer a supremely talented enigma. He’™s just supremely talented.