If you’re a righthander who stands less than six feet and throws a changeup, you grew up idolizing Pedro Martinez, right? Not Eli Morgan.
As a kid, the Gonzaga ace worshipped two 6-foot-6 righthanders in Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay, pitchers who dominated with not only their hard stuff, but their mound presence as well.
Conversely, the mild-mannered, cerebral Morgan, who stands 5-10 and weighs 185 pounds, looks like your paper boy. And that might lead some opposing teams to underestimate him when he first takes the mound
“I could see that,” he said. “At first they watch my warmups (and) they see the low nines (90s). They can’t tell about the changeup from the side.”
It doesn’t take long for opponents to find out they underestimated the junior from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
Despite his size and relative lack of velocity—he tops out at 92 mph—Morgan is tied for second in the country with 107 strikeouts in 79.1 innings, and that includes two games of 15 strikeouts, most recently on April 21 at Portland.
Morgan is 7-2, 2.95 and opponents are hitting .210 against him, and most of that is due to his changeup—a pitch he started throwing not too long ago.
“I’d say I started working on that pitch in high school,” he said. “I threw a split finger in high school, and I knew I still needed a third pitch, other than my breaking ball. “That was something my pitching coach in high school said I needed if I was going to pitch at this level.”
Morgan said he uses a circle-change grip along the four seams that he picked up watching GIFs of the Royals’ Danny Duffy.
“(But) I think the biggest (resemblance) is Marco Estrada from the Blue Jays,” Morgan said when asked which major leaguer he pitches like. “(The pitches) have similar sinking action, with 12-14 miles (an hour) separation.”
The pitch has deep run and sink, and one talent evaluator called it the best changeup he’s ever seen from a college pitcher. The pitch has a tremendous amount of fade, the evaluator said, moving away from lefthanders. The change has screwball action, and the evaluator called it a present plus offering.
Morgan uses his changeup, which sits 74-76 mph, to set up his well-spotted fastball, which sits 88-91. He can reach back for 92 when he needs it and his arm speed and hand speed are so good, he gets awkward-looking swings.
“What they see from the side and what they see from the box are two different things,” coach Mark Machtolf said. “There’s some deception there.”
Morgan says his strikeouts are a product of his ability to throw first-pitch strikes and the sharpness of his change.
But his bulldog mentality helps, Machtolf said.
“He is a fierce competitor, it’s one of his best assets,” said Machtolf, in his 14th season at Gonzaga. “He always wants the ball, and thinks he can beat anybody. It’s a big part of his success.”
Morgan has been excellent in three years at Gonzaga and had a stellar run in the summer Alaska Baseball League with the Matsu Miners in 2015. But pitchers Morgan’s size have few big league analogs. Although Morgan’s the size of the average American male, the vast majority of big league righthanders are at least six feet tall.
Morgan doesn’t like to talk about his draft status, but he couldn’t help but take notice when his former Gonzaga teammate Brandon Bailey—just 5-10, 175 pounds himself—got selected in the sixth round a year ago by Oakland.
Morgan also kept a close eye on how Bailey succeeded on the mound.
“I definitely watched how he got guys out,” Morgan said. “He got a good bit of strikeouts. I assessed him and more on how he can get outs, being that small.”
The evaluator who saw Morgan also warned about counting him out, pointing out the success of relatively diminutive righthanders such as Sonny Gray and Rich Harden.
Morgan might not have watched much of Pedro Martinez, the 5-foot-11 Expos and Red Sox Hall of Famer with the dynamite changeup. But there is another 5-foot-11 righthander Morgan compares himself with.
“I am similar to (Johnny) Cueto,” he said. “I did something similar last year, changing timing, messing with tempos, pausing, switching pitches. His fastball is firmer than mine, and he’s got a pretty good slider. But I model my pitching right now after him.”
He’s not Cueto, but don’t discount Morgan, his coach said.
“Off the field, he’s kind of laid back, he’s not overly vocal,” Machtolf said. “But on the mound, he’s a big-time competitor.”