Offspeed pitch key to Morrow's progress

Offspeed pitch key to Morrow's progress

Offspeed pitch key to Morrow's progress
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- One of the most commonly used cliches uttered by baseball players is "slowing the game down," but for Brandon Morrow it's not just a saying, it's something he literally needs to do on the mound this season.

Toronto's right-hander is known as a power arm with an ability to register his fastball in the upper 90s, and his slider doesn't trail too far behind.

It's the type of raw talent that often has scouts falling over themselves, but whether Morrow can take the next step in his career ultimately will hinge on an ability to master the offspeed.

"A lot of curveballs and a lot of changeups -- that's been my focus since Day 1, and I'm going to continue that through the spring," said Morrow, who pitched two scoreless innings against Boston on Wednesday afternoon.

"[The curveball] is big, and that's why I've talked about it all the time -- changing speeds. We made it pretty clear at the end of last offseason that that's what I wanted to do, and that curveball is probably going to be my best option for that."

Morrow threw almost exclusively fastballs, changeups and curveballs against Boston. He likely will follow a similar strategy next time out, and it won't be until a little bit later in the offseason that he begins to incorporate the slider and cut fastball.

The focus on offspeed pitches has been his No. 1 priority this spring. Last year, Morrow occasionally threw the curveball but had trouble locating the pitch, and the lack of variation in speed led to hitters constantly sitting on high velocity. Getting the curve over for strikes will keep hitters off balance and eliminate the chance of so many tough pitches being fouled off.

Another adjustment Morrow has made is that he is no longer concerned about pacing himself on the mound. Instead, he has upped the overall intensity level to maximize the quality of almost every pitch in every inning.

"On a given night, he pitched as an elite starter in this league," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said as he reflected back on 2011. "Carrying that out to 32 or 34 starts, that's where he found the right effort level in his delivery to maintain, rather than try to pace himself.

"So I think he's settled into that effort level that works best for him. He's realized that his curveball is important for him to create that separation in velocity. Those are things that are part of him maturing as a pitcher."

Morrow's learning curve in Toronto is understandable considering the constant state of flux he was in while playing with the Mariners. Morrow was constantly bounced between the starting rotation and bullpen and never found a comfortable niche.

When the Blue Jays acquired him in December 2009, they made it clear he was going into the rotation on a full-time basis. The days of moving back and forth were over, and the process was started to extend his stamina.

During that time, Morrow had difficulty finding the appropriate effort level. As a closer with Seattle, he went all out on every pitch, but once Morrow made the transition to the starting rotation, he seemed to overcompensate by conserving energy as a way to get through each outing.

It was during Morrow's final three starts in 2011 that he began to figure things out. He allowed just two earned runs in 21 innings of work.

"When he's trying to sink the ball at 91-93 [mph], that's probably pacing himself too much," Farrell said. "Stepping on the gas to 97 or 99, as he can on occasion, is probably too much. Like he said, he's found that optimal level of effort to maintain over the course of a game.

"The ideal velocity can probably be found somewhere in the middle."

Morrow suffered through an up-and-down year in 2011, but there were plenty of positives to take from the experience. He posted career highs in wins (11), starts (30), innings pitched (179 1/3) and strikeouts (203).

The native of California was one of just seven American League pitchers to post 200-plus strikeouts, and his 10.19 strikeouts per nine innings ratio was well above second-place finisher Michael Pineda (9.11/nine).

The ability to miss bats is crucial -- especially for a fly-ball pitcher -- in the American League East.

"It's even more true when you compete and contend for a World Series," Farrell said. "Power stuff wins in the postseason. You don't get a lot of chase out of the strike zone that you might get during the course of the regular season, because guys are so much more focused. That's where power wins out the later you get in the year."

Morrow enters this season having the comfort of a long-term contract in place. The former fifth overall pick of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft was inked to a three-year extension worth $21 million plus a club option in 2015 valued at an additional $10 million.

He'll once again open the year as the Blue Jays' No. 2 starter and will be expected to team up with Ricky Romero to form a formidable one-two punch.

Morrow heard all the talk in the offseason about the need for Toronto to add another frontline starter, and while he understood the reasoning, he does believe there's enough talent in house to get the job done.

"We know we can do the job already, but I think everybody is always looking for more pitching, it doesn't offend us to have that said," Morrow said. "We definitely did some things good last year, but there's definitely some things we could have done better. We didn't add that arm, but I think we definitely have the guys that can do it, if we pitch up to our abilities."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.