Tomorrow always offers the promise of hope, the opportunity to be better and do better. Brandon Morrow, on the other hand, is a flame-throwing harbinger of failure and emptiness, at least for opposing batters. The closer has been every bit the filthy beast the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him for $21 million over two years, and he’s brought more to the table than just a cheese plate.
One need look no further than Ryan Braun’s game-ending at-bat Friday afternoon to see just how dominant Morrow can be on the mound. The lanky right-hander got the Brewers slugger swinging at 98 on the inside corner for strike one, then juiced it up a little to get a called strike on 99 at the knees (Braun objected to the collection of the sample to no avail).
Then came the coup de grâce, another 99 mph dart that was up in Braun’s eyes for a swinging strike.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) April 27, 2018
Far from just unleashing his pitches in the general direction of the plate and praying they pass through the zone on the way to the catcher’s mitt, Morrow is a master of location. That aforementioned cheese at the knees was delivered right to Willson Contreras’s mitt, as was the elevated pitch that followed. It’s one thing to have elite velocity, but major league hitters can catch up to anything if it’s piped in there.
Morrow’s save Sunday afternoon was his fifth already against the Brewers and his seventh in as many chances on the season. He hasn’t allowed a run yet and has walked a mere three batters, only one of which came during a save opportunity. But what’s really interesting is that, for all the nasty stuff, Morrow has only nine strikeouts in 10 innings.
“I try and spot the fastball and put [hitters] on the defensive by attacking and getting them into swing mode and you’ll see some swings out of the zone,” Morrow said over the weekend. “You can get ahead and then dictate pretty much whatever you want.”
And as the pitcher told NBC Sports Chicago’s Tony Andracki, he isn’t even at his peak yet. It’s not just the bats that take time to warm up at Wrigley, though it’s hard to imagine Morrow feeling the ill effects of the cold, what with all the heat he’s thrown. But when you think about how important it is for a pitcher to get in a rhythm, it’s easy to see how all the postponements and poor playing conditions have impacted Morrow and the rest of the staff.
Speaking of Morrow and impact, it’s not just a matter of looking dominant in the final inning and slamming the door on opponents. I mean, yeah, that’s big and it’s going to have a positive domino effect on the rest of the staff. But Morrow has shared his mentality with his fellow relievers, particularly Carl Edwards Jr, and the advice appears to be taking hold.
Like Morrow, Edwards has freakishly good stuff and is capable of immaculate innings each time he steps on the mound. But while Morrow believes in attacking, claiming that “A well-located fastball — regardless of speed — is always weapon No. 1,” Edwards tended to get a little too cute at times. Despite have the stuff to get guys out in the zone, the Stringbean Slinger would try to dance around the corners and would end up issuing too many walks.
That would too often spiral into disaster, particularly when the free passes came early in his appearances.
“[We were] talking about it all spring, attacking,” Morrow said of his conversations with Edwards. “You see when he puts guys on the defensive what he can do. It’s impressive. His shit’s great and when he throws it in the strike zone, they really have no chance.”
It’s not just the guys in the bullpen who are benefiting from Morrow’s tutelage, either. Remember that high strike he threw past Braun to end the game on Friday? I’m assuming you haven’t forgotten already since I just made mention of it above, but perhaps it’ll help if I also mention that this was the only game of the four at Wrigley in which the Brewers actually scored a run.
While the pitch in question was particularly high, perhaps too much so to serve as a really accurate comp, Cubs fans are no doubt still lamenting their own team’s futility against elevated heat when facing Morrow and the Dodgers back in the NLCS. His overall performance on the season was impressive enough in and of itself, but making the Cubs look silly really on a big stage really put Morrow on the team’s radar.
It may have also helped Cubs hitters to avoid the same fate in the future. Not only can they learn from the tape, they can get the straight dope from the man himself. A big part of Morrow’s out-of-nowhere dominance last season was implementing and perfecting the Dodgers’ high-strike strategy, but now he’s in Chicago and helping his new teammates to understand exactly what to look for.
After swinging trades for elite closers in each of the past two seasons, many were concerned that the Cubs planned to hand the ball over to an oft-injured former starter at the end of the game. It’s early yet, but Morrow looks to be at least as proficient a door-slamming bouncer as Aroldis Chapman or Wade Davis were. What’s more, he’s not a rental who’ll have to be replaced next season.
Beyond what he does on the mound, Morrow perfectly exemplifies the holistic approach the Cubs’ front office has employed throughout the organization. Morrow has bounced around between different teams and levels of the game, he’s battled back from injuries and poor performance, and he’s learned from all of it.
Theo Epstein has said in the past that the Cubs put a lot of emphasis on how a player handles adversity in their evaluation of potential additions. We know that the club also values communication, whether it’s among teammates or members of the front office staff. Even in his brief time with the organization, Morrow has become a team leader who sets an example both on and off the field.
And he’s only getting warmed up.