Everybody loves R.A. Dickey. I don’t blame them. Over this last part of the winter, Blue Jays fans have seen a lot of him, and of his crazy knuckleball. I’m excited to have him as the de facto ace of the starting staff. But one pitcher does not a rotation make.
Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson are slotted into the 2nd and 4th positions in the rotation, but that appears to be more for the sake of putting the quick and quiet Mark Buerhle between then, rather than some kind of talent ranking on the part of their manager, John Gibbons. The question that comes to my mind is this: What do the Jays have in 2 starters who could presumably be 2A and 2B in most AL rotations, when they are healthy.
First, let’s look at the pitch mix for both players, charted by Brooks Baseball.
Then Morrow:These two profiles are very similar. Both throw and average four-seam fastball that averages just under 94 mph. Sliders are both around 88, curveballs at 80 mph. Morrow has a much larger differential when he throws in a changeup, which is 2.5 mph slower than Johnson’s. He also uses it twice as much, possibly to better effect. Johnson’s slider is ‘nastier’ with a little more horizontal movement, and a lot more vertical. Morrow has six pitches that he’ll mix in, to Johnson’s five. However, Brandon still lives and dies by the fastball, throwing is 60 percent of the time and sprinkling in everything else, Johnson has a tighter repertoire, as he goes fastball/slider/curve 90 percent of the time.
According to Fangraphs, using an innings floor of 120, Johnson and Morrow ranked 18th and 13th in fastball velocity in the MLB last year. Johnson’s slider velocity ranked 7th, Morrow’s 3rd. These are some hard throwers, with top of the line sliders.
Once the pitch leaves their hands, the batter has to do something with it, so we ask the following: Do similar speeds and pitch movement translate into similar results? Let’s check the charts again, this time with outcomes in 2012.
Morrow:Now first off, Morrow lacks a real sinker. He threw ten of them all year, and didn’t get a ground ball. Not very sinky. On the other hand, he did manage to get decent ground ball rates out fo all his other offspeed pitches. Johnson’s sinker works as advertised, resulting in a 62% ground ball rate when put in play, and no home runs off of it in 115 pitches.
The other interesting note is about how ‘nasty’ the slider is. Johnson’s had more movement in the first chart. However, Morrow’s results in less foul balls, slightly more swings and misses, less line drives, and more pop-ups when put in play. Whether or not it moves more, the sequences that Morrow uses it in get him better results in general.
Another odd thing you might notice is Johnson gave up home runs rarely, but saws balls leave the park on three different pitch types. Morrow gave home runs on mistakes with the fastball only. Every single one was off of the four seamer. Maybe there’s a way to help himself there. We know he reads Brooks Baseball when he has the time.
Now before a few more fun charts, I’d like to point out something about the two pitchers in question. The casual observer might have assumed that they were of similar physical frame, seeing as the ball seems to come out of their hands with similar results. Surprisingly, Josh Johnson is four inches taller, and is listed at fifty pounds heavier than Brandon Morrow. Now, Johnson has lost some velocity due to recovery from shoulder surgery, but Morrow’s fastball has been dialed down a bunch since entering the starting rotation. It seems worth noting that such similar results can come from two significantly different starting points.
Now, a few more comparisons between the two men before we sum up. Here are all pitches thrown, in 2012, comparing horizontal vs. vertical movement.
Johnson on the left, Morrow on the right.
You can see the small amount of sink in JJ’s fastball, and his more frequent use of the sinker (in grey)and the curve, (in yellow). Morrow features the cutter (in burgundy), instead, and appears to be a little less consistent in his delivery, with more ‘outlier’ pitches on the chart, but he has less total pitches because of his injury, which might skew that appearance.
Now, one final comparison from the info available at Brooks Baseball. Brooks allows us to look at all the pitches throw in a given count for an entire year. So, just for fun, what do Johnson and Morrow turn to when they want to finish a hitter off? I alway consider the 1-2 count to be a good indication of what a pitcher feels is his strongest pitch in a sequence. When 0-2, the tendency to waste a pitch, to test the batter’s eye, is always there. The strike zone is also artificially shrunken in that count.
By the time we get to 3-2, the danger of walking the batter leads to a more conservative approach, so 1-2 is the time when the pitcher is more likely to bring out the really nasty stuff to finish off a hitter while he’s on his heels.
Here’s how Josh Johnson deals with righties and lefties in a 1-2 count:
Lefties get a mixed bag, fastballs all over the zone, and some up at the eyes. Then there are curves and changeups on the outer half and low, and, just to keep them honest ‘back foot’ sliders thrown under their hands and breaking into the body. Righties see mostly 2 things sliders low and out of reach, and fastballs down in the zone. Nothing too cute here, he trusts his 2 hardest pitches to finish off the same-handed batters.
Now does Brandon Morrow follow the same philosophy?
First thing I notice is that Morrow will put sliders in the middle of the zone against left-handers, even when well ahead in the count. He also appears to be wild with the curveball, heaving it in just about every spot in and out of the zone. Morrow will throw the back foot slider as well, in the same vein as Johnson. Against righties, again, Morrow finds the meat of the zone quite often with the slider and fastball, and misses high with the slider, which Johnson never, ever does in this count.
There are clear differences in approach here, though the slider is the common weapon. These last two charts appear to show that Josh has a much better ability to hit spots than Brandon does.
So what can we learn about Johnson and Morrow from a head to head comparison?
Well, I can see that both of them like old hats. Also Morrow has waaaay more in the facial hair department.
Seriously, though, both of these guys have had succes in their own way, with their two biggest weapons looking very similar on paper. The subtleties of the art of pitching, however, have caused them to devlop slightly different game plans.
Johnson has had more years of experience in the majors, with an extra 250 innings logged. He has historically walked less, and allowed fewer homes, but he’s struck out less than Morrow as well. Johnson can get a ground ball when he needs one, Morrow was the beneficiary of one ground ball double play in the whole 2011 season. Brandon can bear down and get a strikeout almost at will, but is trying to become a more efficient pitcher, looking to lower his pitch count and get deeper into games. Johnson led his league once in ERA, Morrow once in K/9.
Ultimately, they are both power pitchers, and if healthy, they are right at the peak of their effectiveness. I can’t guess when injuries might occur, and I hope they don’t occur at all. When this pair is healty, these two have the tools to give nightmares to any lineup in the American league. They are also similar enough in their approach, that if one struggles, the other could well understand how to think of a way to approach that problem.
To mangle a metaphor Johnson and Morrow, may have started with the same set of lego, but they managed to make two slightly different houses out of the blocks.