Is Bryan Morris a Future Closer For the Pirates?


Bryan Morris was acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 31, 2008 as a part of the deal that sent Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox and Manny Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Morris was a part of a prospect package the Pirates returned that included Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche and Craig Hansen.

Bryan Morris Pirates

Bryan Morris became a member of the Pirates organization on July 31, 2008. (Photo by: David Hague)

Morris’ start in his new organization was a rocky one, as he was suspended for “unprofessional” conduct in August of 2009. Before that, he sat on the disabled list for 58 days with tendonitis that required surgery on his right shoulder which prevented Morris’ 2009 season from beginning until June 6.

The No. 26 overall selection of the 2006 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers had already undergone Tommy John surgery in 2007, and in 2009 changes needed to be made. Which Morris resisted.

PAST

In 2006, Morris shared the honor of possessing the “Best Fastball” by Baseball America. in baseball’s 2006 draft class. The player Morris shared the title with? Clayton Kershaw. By the end of the season, he was rated as the top overall prospect in the Pioneer League as a member of the Dodgers rookie-level affiliate Ogden Raptors.

Three years later, despite health issues, he was still valued enough as a member of Pittsburgh’s farm system that the Pirates added him to their 40-man roster in order to protect him from being selected in that year’s Rule 5 Draft, even though he began the next season in Bradenton.

In 2009, Morris wasn’t very good. He started 15 games at High-A Lynchburg and went 4-9 with a 5.57 ERA while he walked more batters than he struck out.

Bryan Morris posted a 5.57 in his first full season as a Pirate.

Bryan Morris posted a 5.57 in his first full season as a Pirate.

After that 2009 season, still stuck at the High-A level three full seasons after he was drafted, Morris accepted the changes he needed to make and began to do so in instructional leagues that offseason with the assistance of Jim Benedict.

“That fall we went out to the bullpen, alone [at] seven o’clock every morning, just me and him for five weeks,” Morris said. “[We] just kind of re-built the foundation. That’s kind of where it started and it’s just been a work in progress since then.”

Re-building that foundation entailed changing Morris’ delivery so that he stayed on his backside longer and did not rush the ball out of his throwing motion, Morris said.

“I was never on top of the ball. I was always behind it, everything was flat and up in the zone so those were the two [issues].”

The adjustments paid immediate dividends in his 2010 season, as Morris’ strikeout rate more than doubled from his previous campaign while his walk rate was nearly halved.

K%

K/9

BB%

BB/9

K/BB

WHIP

ERA

2009

9.6%

4.0

10.2%

4.2

0.94

1.665

5.57

2010

22%

8.3

6.7%

2.6

3.26

1.212

3.03

As a result, Morris earned a promotion to Double-A Altoona on May 15, 2010 after just eight starts in which he posted an 0.60 ERA for the Bradenton Marauders. That year, he  received the most votes of any player named to the Florida State League All-Star team.

Later that summer, Morris and Gorkys Hernandez represented the Pirates at the MLB Futures Game. Morris finished his season with a 6-4 record in 16 starts in Altoona, with his final start coming on August 19–roughly a month before the Curve’s season ended.

He made his final three appearances out of the bullpen that year, beginning a transition process that would last through the winter and spring.

That same winter, Clint Hurdle was hired as the Pirates’ 39th manager on  Nov. 15, 2010 and saw the 6-foot-3 Tennessean pitch for the first time soon after. Hurdle’s first impression of the then-23-year-old left him impressed.

“The projection was, the first trade that he was in that brought him over, this could be a guy that could pitch in the back end of the bullpen,” Hurdle said. “When I first saw him, one of my comments was to Neal, this guy at the time had the best back-end bullpen stuff of somebody not on our team.”

With the stuff Morris had at the time, the Pirates followed through with the decision to move Morris to the bullpen. Pitching coach Ray Searage said the decision was based mostly off the phenomena that “some guys just lose the quality of their stuff as they go deeper into the game.”

“Bryan had this magic arm that could give you two to three innings of some really above-average pitches but then the fourth and the fifth, he ran out of gas,” Searage said. “[Pitchers’] DNA really kind of dictates that then you keep an eye on it, you see what happens and then you just know that at this point in time that this guy is really slated for the bullpen as opposed to the rotation.”

The change was a welcome one for Morris, who said his mentality is shaped by the way he grew up playing the game of baseball–every day.

“What I like most about [pitching from the bullpen] is there’s an opportunity to play in every game,” Morris said. “That was the issue for me as a starter, I had those four days where I didn’t get to look forward to playing in a game because I knew I wasn’t playing in the game. After batting practice was done in those four days, my day was over. I just watch and support the rest of the guys.”

“I feel like I’m a gamer and I like the opportunity to play every day.”

Morris then spent the entire 2011 season in Altoona, where his peripheral numbers reflected a slight decline from his form in the previous season. However, that decline may be attributed solely to the adjustments made from Morris’ move from the rotation to the bullpen.

He also worked a new pitch into his repertoire that season, with a hard slider or cutter that he threw 49.3 percent of the time.

Morris was dominant in his only season as an Indian, striking out nearly a batter per inning.

Morris was dominant in his only season as an Indian, striking out nearly a batter per inning.

The organization saw enough from Morris that year in Altoona that they promoted him to Triple-A Indianapolis where he would spend all of 2012. That year, Morris shed any signs of doubt in his ability as he led all Indian relievers in strikeouts and cut his walk rate in half from the year before in Double-A.

K%

K/9

BB%

BB/9

K/BB

WHIP

ERA

2011 (AA)

19.6%

7.4

10.1%

3.8

1.90

1.346

3.35

2012 (AAA)

23.5%

8.8

5.1%

1.9

4.65

1.148

2.67

Morris’ stats in 2012 were among the best he posted at any level, and his successful season culminated him making his major league debut as a September call-up on Sept. 14 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs.

In 2013, Morris didn’t have to wait as long for his call to the bigs as his impressive 2012 campaign coupled with Chris Leroux being designated for assignment by the big league club resulted in Morris becoming a full-fledged (or full-finned) member of the Shark Tank.

K%

K/9

BB%

BB/9

K/BB

WHIP

ERA

2013

13.7%

5.12

10.4%

3.88

1.32

1.31

3.46

PRESENT

As the only remaining piece acquired in one of Huntington’s first major trades, Morris finally seems to be tapping into the potential that gave many reason to call him the “prize” of the four players Pittsburgh received from Boston and Los Angeles nearly six years ago.

So far, Morris has pitched superbly in nine innings of work in the Pirates’ young season. He’s walked just one batter so far, struck out seven and stranded all but one of the runners he has inherited. If the numbers maintain (and Jason Grilli continues to pitch at a 4.90 FIP pace) the Pirates have a bona fide option to eat innings at the end of games.

K%

K/9

BB%

BB/9

K/BB

WHIP

ERA

2014

21.9%

7.00

3.1%

1.00

7.00

0.89

2.00

Morris said his numbers this year are improved because he is beginning to maximize the results he’s receiving from his body because of how sound his mechanics are.

“What I’m noticing now is my angle to the plate is a lot better,” Morris said. “My pitches aren’t real flat and to this point I’ve been able to attack the strike zone.”

From the dugout, Hurdle has also noticed the manifestations of improved mechanics.

“The delivery is clean, fastball command is improved, there is more velocity and there is definitely more tilt and break in the slider,” Hurdle said. “The cutter-slider has become a wipeout pitch for him, very good.”

In addition, Morris added a shoulder program to his workouts over the offseason that made his arm stronger and is paying immediate dividends.

“It’s just kind of made my shoulder more stable and it’s just allowed me to hit my top velocities more often,” Morris said.

As a result, Morris’ average fastball velocity this season is improved by over one mile-per-hour, up to 95.3 miles per hour as opposed to his 2012 mark of 93.9 miles per hour.

In addition, Morris credits his early success to just “keeping it simple” when he’s on the mound.

“Keeping it as simple and attacking the zone, attacking the hitter, trying to get ahead,” Morris said. “That was a big issue for me last year, I was always behind so I was battling and it got me in trouble a lot.”

Alongside the shoulder program, Morris also added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire which Searage believes will form a lethal combination with the slider Morris added in 2011. He threw that slider 477 times in 2013 to account for over half of the 941 pitches he delivered last year.

“One [pitch] goes to the arm side down and away or down and in, and the other one goes to the glove side down and away,” Searage said. “When you’ve got two pitches like that, that split the plate going the other ways, it’s going to make the hitter hard to sit on something.”

Morris added the pitch over the winter, which Searage said allowed him to nail down his release point. He then developed confidence and command with the two-seamer during the spring training when he was throwing in live-game situations as opposed to just hitting a target in the bullpen.

This year, Morris has thrown his fastball 67 times and has generated a 88.9 percent ground-ball rate with the pitch. Coupled with a contact rate of just 72.5 percent contact rate on the pitch, Morris is seeing excellent results from the addition so far.

Beyond the mechanics and pitching acumen, Morris has grown in another way. He turned 27 on March 28, three days before the 2014 season began, and Hurdle says the year of experience in the big leagues pitching “meaningful innings” is part of that.

Morris took advantage of his opportunity in 2013 to become a reliable member of the Shark Tank. Photo Credit: David Hague

Morris took advantage of his opportunity in 2013 to become a reliable member of the Shark Tank.   Photo Credit: David Hague

For Searage, Morris has also become more comfortable just from the knowledge that he has made it to “the Show.”

“He believes he’s a major-league pitcher now so he doesn’t have to think he’s a major-league pitcher,” Searage said. “He is a major league pitcher, so he’s matured that way.”

FUTURE

Huntington himself says he still sees Morris as a “prototypical back-end bullpen” pitcher. Morris had shown that potential before he was acquired in 2008, and is finally living up to it.

“The evolution, the ability to throw a mid-90s two-seamer with power-sink to go along with the cutter and curveball has a chance to make him a very good reliever for years to come and again,” Huntington said. “You love the competitor and you love the guy.”

Searage and Hurdle concur with their boss, and Hurdle says “it very well could play out that way” that Morris will become the guy for the Pirates at the end of the bullpen at some point down the line.

But Morris as a competitor doesn’t think much beyond the game his team is playing that day, just as Hurdle wants his players to, and moving forward his goals aren’t much different than his approach of keeping it simple day-in, day-out.

“Obviously I’m never going to be perfect so I’ll always have something to work on, but that’s the goal for me, is just improving what I have right now,” Morris said. “I’m not going to invent anything new. I’m just going to just go out, stay consistent and compete every day.”

Author: Nate Barnes

Nate covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects, and is an English Writing major at the University of Pittsburgh. Nate has covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report, and covered Pitt Men's Basketball, Duquesne Men's Basketball, and Pitt Baseball beats prior to this summer. You can find Nate on Twitter @NateBarnes_ where he'll keep you updated on each and every time Clint Barmes breaks up a no-hit bid with one-out in the third inning of ballgames.

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  • https://www.facebook.com/steve.peipock Bonds Top Hand

    As I said on another thread. Why isn’t Wilson getting the chance to close? You just can’t teach 97-100 mph from the left side with movement. Worked pretty well for Billy Wagner. Why no love for Wilson? It will take huge improvements for me to trust Morris in an 8th inning role, let alone the closer role.

  • johndw28

    I’ve been hoping this move happens sooner as opposed to later. I do also like Wilson and Watson though Wilson’s control scares me a bit. Small sample size but should be noted Wilson is spotting and ERC of 5.45 so far this year- almost exact same as Grillis

    • https://www.facebook.com/steve.peipock Bonds Top Hand

      Fair enough, but mistakes at 97-100 versus 92-94 are alot harder to square up and drive. And I think the numbers would prove that in a larger sample size. But as you said, it is a small sample size at this point. His velo can mask the off days with his control on mistake pitches. And I personally will always take the guy who can almost throw 100 in the 9th from the left side. Something you just don’t see everyday, even at the big league level.

      • johndw28

        Very fair points- I’m a huge Justin Wilson fan. Sometimes wonder if he might not have more value to us as a starter in the rotation but in any event could definitely see him succeeding as a closer also.

  • smurph

    I don’t think anyone knows how this will play out. At this point the Pirates should be considering a closer-by-committee approach. You can’t drop Grilli from the equation, but it is obvious to me he will not match last season’s accomplishments. You might decide the 9th inning pitcher in a particular game based on matchups. I do think Morris has what it takes to be a very good closer. Is he ready yet? Don’t know.

    • moose7195

      I don’t think anything can be considered obvious 8 appearances into the season. Still plenty of time for Grilli to find his groove

  • Greg7373

    Excellent article, Nate!! A lot of us had noticed Bryan Morris’ increased velocity (and improved performance this year) and this great article provides some of the background explaining how that happened. The shoulder exercise program is particularly interesting.

    • Nate Barnes

      Thanks Greg!

  • CTBucco

    Nice article, Tim. Definitely rooting for Morris to move up. We’ll need an 8th inning guy or closer next season.

    I haven’t seen anyone mention this anywhere yet, but is anyone concerned that Grilli’s “7 inning spring training” has something to do with his ineffectiveness? I don’t know how you can develop the kind of control he needs to succeed with so few game-intensity innings.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I’ve actually written about this twice…..

  • piraddict

    One of the most important stats for a closer is BB%. Don’t beat yourself in the 9th by giving up a cheap base runner. Watson and Melancon have excelled at that and are actually pitching better than Morris so far this year. Morris is showing much better control so far this year than previously. The 2 seamer is a fantastic addition to his repertoire. With a four pitch mix, solid velocity on his four seamer and control he could be a nightmare in the 9th. I was down on Morris at the end of last year because he tended to only use two pitches which he often elevated, putting on a tee for the hitters. The new 2014 Morris is keeping the ball down in the zone, with a better mix and separation of velocities. It’s exciting to see his development as a pitcher!

  • Gallatin

    Moriss is ready for the 8th inning role IMO. The shoulder program he is doing is called Velocity Plus, and is about to revolutionize the game. Most pitchers pick up 4+ MPH on the fastball from doing the offseason program. That is not a typo – 4 MPH average improvement.

    His 2 new seamer is actually faster than his 4 seamer was last year. That just never happens in my experience.

  • krinks

    The Buccos have to do something. Another decent season as closer will easily earn Grilli a 2yr/16 mil deal and someone will give it. Hats off to him who not that long ago was stuck at the Phillys AAA team. I now laugh at the Phils who gave a king’s ransom for that fellow whose name I can’t remember when they had the Grilled Cheese and wouldn’t give him a chance.
    Anyway, why not Morris?