On the day of their first full-squad workouts, groups of Blue Jays’ hitters stepped into a quartet of batting cages to face their teammates, who were throwing to hitters for the first time this year.
Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind and Mark DeRosa had the opportunity to be befuddled by the dancing knuckleballs of R.A. Dickey, but it was the meat of the order that drew what might have been the most difficult assignment: Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion had to face Brandon Morrow.
Very quietly, Morrow had the best year of his career last season. He was the only Blue Jays’ starter to post a double-digit win total – ten – a feat made all the more impressive by the facts that he was pitching for a team that lost 89 games, and that he missed close to half the season with an oblique muscle injury.
Morrow made 21 starts in 2012, and in 13 of them, he allowed the opposition to score no more than one earned run.
The Blue Jays made some pretty impressive pitching acquisitions this winter, bringing in Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Dickey, the defending National League Cy Young Award winner, but Morrow is the only one on the staff who achieved that level of dominance. Dickey did hold the opposition to one earned run or fewer 15 times in 2012, but he did it over 33 starts.
Still, many are surprised that Morrow has been tabbed to start the season’s second game (behind Dickey) instead of the more established, former ERA champion Johnson or Buehrle, the veteran workhorse with a World Series ring and a perfect game in his back pocket, but know this – even with all the new, outstanding additions that have made the Blue Jays instant contenders in 2013, the man who may well wind up the best of the bunch has already been here for three years.
Facing Bautista, Cabrera and Encarnacion in his first session with hitters in the box wasn’t a big deal to Morrow – neither Bautista nor Cabrera even took a swing, and Encarnacion had but three rips – it was more an opportunity for him to get a different look than simply throwing a bullpen session. Moreover, it gave him a change to get used to having a real strike zone to attack rather than just playing catch.
Morrow isn’t going to change his approach at all from last spring – a Grapefruit season spent working mostly on control of his change-up and curveball, saving his slider for much closer to go-time – because things worked out so well for him. Morrow exploded out of the blocks in 2012, throwing seven innings of one-hit ball at the Cleveland Indians in starting the second game of the season, and when his oblique bit at him in June, he was in a run that saw him allow one earned run or fewer in seven of nine starts, the last being a complete-game two-hit shutout of the Chicago White Sox.
Morrow’s days of reaching 100 pitches in the fifth inning seemed behind him, as he’d pitched into the seventh inning in ten of his 12 starts before getting hurt, and it appeared as though Morrow was crossing the threshold into the level of consistent dominance that had been predicted for him ever since the Seattle Mariners spent the fifth overall pick on him back in 2006.
Coming off a season in which he posted the lowest WHIP, best walk rate and lowest hits-to-innings-pitched ratio of his career, and one in which he would almost certainly have reached the 200 innings pitched mark for the first time, Morrow is poised to finally have that breakthrough season.
If he does wind up fulfilling that incredible promise – and he showed far more than a glimpse of being able to do that in his injury-shortened 2012 – Morrow’s contributions may well overshadow those of his new teammates in what promises to be the best year to be a Blue Jays fan in two decades.