After coming to Indianapolis on June 7 with a 1.64 ERA in Altoona, A.J. Morris has hit the ground running. Morris had three very strong starts, including a six-hit shutout on June 12. He went down with a right forearm strain, missing two months, and returned this week to struggle in his first game back for Indianapolis. He’ll have a few weeks to show that he can get back to where he was before the injury.
Prior to going on the DL on June 25th, Morris had compiled a 2.08 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 25 walks in 78 innings between Indianapolis and Altoona. For Morris, the success comes from throwing strikes early in the count.
“For the most part [throwing a high percentage of strikes] is my main focus this year,” Morris said. “When you get ahead in the count, only good things can happen in those counts. You’ll have your games where it doesn’t happen and you have to battle, but the ultimate goal is to throw as many strikes as you can, down in the zone.”
Since his promotion, Morris has been able to do just that. In his first four starts with Indianapolis, of Morris’ 348 pitches, 66 percent of them have crossed the plate for strikes. In the complete game shutout, Morris threw 73 of his 97 pitches for strikes.
Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer said that Morris’ success in that game was due to throwing those first pitch strikes.
“He was getting ahead and then putting guys away,” Filer said. “Anytime that he got in trouble, there was twice when that got somebody to second base with nobody out and he left them there just about…Anytime he faced a challenge, he was up to it.”
In addition, Filer is pleased with how Morris has been able to command all of his pitches, but particular in the shutout.
“[In the shutout] he was outstanding,” Filer said. “He commanded both sides of the plate, down in the zone, and up when he wanted to be. He was able to throw the breaking ball for strikes when he wanted to. He made it look easy.”
Morris works with three different pitches. However he does have two different types of fastballs in his arsenal with differing action. He throws a four-seam fastball that has cutting action, and a two-seam fastball with sinking action. He uses the slider as an out pitch, and says that his changeup “is coming along a little bit” as he adds confidence in the pitch.
In addition to his command on each pitch, Filer is also pleased with the spread of velocity on them. He also points to the movement that Morris achieves as a reason for the success.
“What he does, is he cuts the ball with his fastball,” Filer said. “It’s 89 to 91 with a cut. Then he throws 89 to 91 with a sink also. He actually has two types of fastballs…[The curveball] is 80 to 82, 83 at the max, but it is kind of like a curveball, slider, slurve, a mixture of pitches.”
Though the adjustments have been few and far between, Morris did have a slight alteration in between his first start with Indianapolis and his second – the shutout. In the first start, Morris allowed two earned runs over six innings.
“I have been working on staying back,” Morris said. “I think in the first game up here in Triple-A, I was kind of rushing a little bit. It could have been some anxiety or anticipation for the first game or whatnot. It was just staying back and it was a quick fix. That is something that we worked on in a bullpen session and it paid off.”
Morris said that he realizes that the only way that he can be successful is to keep the ball down and have the hitters put the ball in play on the ground. He had a 1.87 GO/AO ratio this year.
In his fourth start at Triple-A on June 23, Morris had his toughest outing of the season. He lasted only three innings, allowing eight hits and five earned runs, while walking a pair. He also was not able to strike out a single hitter. In his first three outing, Morris struck out 15 hitters in 20 innings. To that point, this was the only game that Morris has allowed over three runs this campaign at both levels. Morris was placed on the DL two days later.
After returning from the DL, Morris had four appearances with the GCL Pirates. In those outings, he allowed four hits and two runs in seven innings. After this, he made two appearances with Bradenton and Altoona. In Bradenton, he pitched a perfect frame. However, he got roughed up a bit with the Curve, allowing seven hits and three runs in four innings.
His first start back in Indianapolis on Thursday went just as rough. In four innings, Morris allowed eight hits and six runs. He did strike out five and appeared to settle down in his final two innings of work.
Morris missed the entire 2011 season after shoulder surgery and is 27 years old. This limits his upside, as he has likely reached his talent ceiling. In 2012, Morris rebounded well after the surgery, posting a 2.24 ERA in 39 relief appearance. Outside of 2012 and this campaign, Morris has never posted a season ERA under 3.35. Last season, at Double-A in the Cubs organization, Morris posted a 4.75 ERA. This was his first taste above A-ball.
With the sample size this season and the lengthy DL stint just as he was working up momentum, it is tough to see if Morris’ three month stretch of success was legitimate or just a blip on the radar. With his arsenal, Morris compares well to the other sinker ball pitchers at the high level of the organization, including Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler. Morris also projects to a similar spot in the rotation, as a back end starter at very best in Pittsburgh. However, it appears that Morris may be better suited for relief or as organizational depth. This season, Morris will struggle to make it to the big leagues as he is pretty buried with comparative depth.