Image credit: Francisco Morales (Photo courtesy of Mike Dill)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — On its own, Francisco Morales’ arsenal is one of the most devastating in the Phillies’ system. He regularly brings his fastball into the mid-90s, and his slider falls off the table in the upper 80s.
When commanded, those two pitches alone are enough to give low Class A hitters fits. He’s also slowly working in a mid-80s changeup, but he primarily works with the fastball and slider for now.
The results have shown up particularly loudly in his last two outings—a bullpen appearance and a start with piggyback partner Victor Santos—in which he’s pitched seven innings, allowed one run (unearned), walked one and struck out 16 hitters.
To get to those numbers, Morales and pitching coach Matt Hockenberry, with the help of cutting-edge technology, have worked hard between starts to make small adjustments to his delivery that will allow him to make his already enviable arsenal even more dynamic.
When they work in concert, those tweaks help him repeat his delivery more often and in turn lead to more consistently nasty pitches.
“There’s a lot of times where he knows he can run it up into the mid- to upper 90s with his fastball, but sometimes he stays back too much on the mound to where he creates too much angle on it. His release point is inefficient, the way the ball comes out of his hand with spin rate and ride and all these other characteristics are inefficient,” Hockenberry said, outlining what can go wrong in Morales’ mechanics.
“But (against Greensboro) he had the complete package. He got to a load, got down the slope and got the extension with his hand. It showed on both his fastball and his slider.”
The result, beyond the six strikeouts over three innings, was 13 swinging strikes in 41 pitches (31.7 percent). For reference, the big league leader in that category is reigning AL Cy Young winner and Rays lefthander Blake Snell, who draws swings and misses at a 19.2 percent clip.
The numbers weren’t quite as gaudy in his most recent outing at Delmarva on May 22, when Morales garnered 16 whiffs in 68 pitches, good for a 23.5 percent mark. Still, he struck out 10 in five innings in that game, and the 16 strikeouts in his last two outings represent 32 percent of his season total.
Morales is a big man at a listed 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds as a 19-year-old. He has the long levers to go with that frame, and the excellent extension he produces in his delivery helps his fastball appear even harder. To get the best results out of his fastball, however, Morales has to couple his natural arm strength and extension with precise tilt when he releases the pitch.
He and Hockenberry work between appearances with a Rapsodo pitch-tracking device designed to instantly identify any flaws in the way he delivers the ball. Together, they’ve concluded that finding the right slot for the pitch helps maximize the way it plays through the zone.
“(The Rapsodo) gives you instant feedback on what the camera sees the ball doing on the flight to home plate. It puts it in the zone, it shows you how much vertical movement it has, how much horizontal movement it has, and for a guy like Morales who’s been on the Rapsodo multiple times to try to get him to figure out how to stay on top of the ball, it’s instant so he can see it,” Hockenberry said.
“He might feel like he’s throwing a good fastball at like a 1:30 tilt on the ball, but the inefficiencies in the spin, the movement, the way the ball plays in the zone, he can see that (on the Rapsodo), so it’s easier for him to make an adjustment based off of what he sees and how we’re explaining it to him than just the standard, old-time ways of just saying ‘get on top of the ball.’”
With those few tweaks, Morales has optimized his delivery and amplified an already excellent arsenal. If he can stay consistent with those mechanics, the likelihood that he’ll reach his full potential will become even greater.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The rotation at high Class A Jupiter is stocked full of talent, but one name who might be flying a bit under the radar is Jordan Holloway. The Marlins’ 20th-round pick out of a Colorado high school in 2014 had Tommy John surgery in June 2017 and pitched just eight innings last season. Scouts who have seen him this year have seen a fastball in the 95-99 mph range along with a curveball and a slider that each flash plus or better.
— Yankees righthander Alexander Vizcaino has stuck out among a talented rotation at low Class A Charleston, thanks in part to a much-improved changeup that sits in the 91-92 mph range and has trap-door action.
— Dodgers outfield prospect Niko Hulsizer, the team’s 11th-round pick last year out of Morehead State, leads the Midwest League with 11 home runs and his 178 wRC+ is tops on the circuit, too.