More Morrow

Tuesday, January 24 2012 @ 12:35 PM EST

Contributed by: Anders

The Jays signed Brandon Morrow to a (for all intents and purposes) 3 year, $21 million deal with a club option for $9 million. Will he be worth it?

The short answer? It depends.

Per Mike Wilner, Morrow will make $4 mil in 2012, and then $8 million in 2013 and 2014, with the $10 million option/$1 million buyout in 2015. Going into 2012 Morrow had accumulated four years of service time, which means that this deal buys out at least one and potentially two years of free agency. The two sides had submitted for $3.9 and $4.2 million in arbitration, so Morrow was going to get about $4 million bucks in any event. The standard rule of thumb is that players get 40%, 60% and 80% of their value in their three years of arbitration; if we look at the last three years of the contract that basically prices Morrow as about a $9 million a year pitcher (or $8.5 if you look at the whole thing.)

Over the last two years Morrow has been either one of the best or worst pitchers in baseball, depending on how you look at things. His cumulative fWAR, FIP and xFIP all rank in the top 25 among the 86 pitchers that threw a total of 300 innings over the two years (lots of guys who pitched worse obviously don't make the innings cutoff), and he leads baseball in K/9 by a full strikeout. Here comes the giant asterisk though: as any Jays fan could tell you, Morrow has come nowhere near close to living up to those numbers in the earned runs category, which at the end of the day is all that really counts. Basically this comes down to Morrow getting hammered with runners on base. The extent to which this is a fluke or not is unclear at this point. Pitching from the stretch is clearly a skill, but Morrow's luck, for lack of a better term, has been especially poor (see this excellent Fangraphs piece for more.) I tend to come down on the unlucky side, and think he straightens himself out, but at this point it's been two full years of significant underperforming  of peripherals, so who knows.

So is this a fair contract? Using Baseball Reference's WAR, which uses ERA as its baseline, Morrow's been worth 2.9 wins combined over the last two years. Fangraphs, which uses FIP (or is it xFIP?) has him at 7.1. This nicely illustrates the problem with trying to figure out if Morrow will be worth his contract. What it comes down to is whether you believe Morrow will in effect "normalize" and pitch well, or if he's doomed to never quite match his stuff. I tend to come down on the normalize approach. I'm actually reminded of Kelvim Escobar, who had a lot of trouble pitching out of the stretch when he was a Blue Jay - he was in fact awful, stranding  as few at 65% of baserunners in a couple of seasons (Ricky Romero for his career is at ~75%, and was at 79% last year, as another example.) Escobar was actually somewhat similar to Morrow, with nasty stuff, although he walked more and struck out fewer. Escobar started to turn things around his last two years with the Jays before signing with the Angels and posting five straight sub 4.00 ERA years with the Angels (with better peripherals and a better strand rate than in T.O.) Obviously that Escobar did this doesn't mean Morrow will, but if one considers it an either/or proposition I think it's more likely Morrow starts pitching closer to his numbers.

If he does that I think he'll be worth the contract, perhaps comfortably. Still, when you factor in the uncertainty, I think the Jays are basically paying Morrow fairly. They could have gone to arbitration with him, where they very possibly would have won, given Morrow's poor ERA, but that wouldn't have saved them much. Instead they get to pay Morrow reasonably fairly and for this they are rewarded with cost certainty, a free agency year and $9 million dollar option in 2015, when Morrow will be 31 and, given inflation, easily worth that, with an out if he's injured. As a comparison, Hiroki Kuroda, who I think is a pretty fair comparable to Morrow given his age and home ballpark, just signed for $10 million for one year.