|Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow throws off the mound during practice at the team's spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida on February 16, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
DUNEDIN — Over the course of a full season, the Blue Jays will face their four division opponents 72 times, accounting for 44% of their schedule. As a pitcher at the front end of the Jays rotation, it stands to reason that Brandon Morrow will make anywhere between 15-18 starts against the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Orioles.
That’s enough exposure by itself and a primary reason why, with his teammates on the road to Port Charlotte Tuesday for the second of five scheduled pre-season games against the Tampa Bay Rays, Morrow stayed behind and tossed 55 pitches in a simulated game against some of his own teammates.
Morrow had pitched the first game against Tampa last Wednesday and it would have been his turn again Tuesday and his turn again next Sunday when they face Tampa again. Instead, Marc Rzepczynski got the start while Morrow got his work in at empty Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
“I faced them last week, it would have been again today and then next weekend,” explained Morrow. “It would have been three times in a row and we’re just trying to avoid that.”
While it might seem that pitching in such a casual setting, with no umpire and no real opponent, might not replicate the kind of competitive situation he should be preparing for, Morrow still finds it valuable.
“It’s a way to slow down the game a bit,” he said. “In a competitive situation, you get caught up in trying to get guys out as much as just making your pitches. That’s the main focus of doing a simulated game, is to take the adrenaline out of the picture and just make your pitches.”
Morrow has made some gigantic strides in the past year as a pitcher, going from the uncertainty surrounding his role in Seattle to a steady, secure role as a starter in Toronto.
“You think about all the things he has absorbed in the last year,” said pitching coach Bruce Walton. “Changing teams, changing roles, mechanical changes, changes in philosophy of pitching and having him come out the other side as a guy who knows what it is to really pitch. It’s a lot.”
Because he had only occasionally pitched as a starter before last season, the Jays were careful not to let him pitch more innings than he could safely work without endangering his arm.
Studies have shown that, year over year, pitchers should increase their innings by no more than 20% to minimize the chance of arm trouble. In 2010, after pitching 125 innings at Seattle and triple-A Tacoma in 2009, he was shut down after 146 innings in Toronto. This year they’re expecting to lengthen him out to 175 innings.
The problem with that kind of a limit is that he’s now a more efficient pitcher than he was a year ago. By lowering his average pitch-count per inning, he should be able to increase his innings pitched without adding extra stress to his arm.
“We’ll have to see later in the season, I guess,” he said. “I expect to reach the innings limit that I reached last year quite a bit earlier based on going deeper into games, especially earlier in the season.
“I was only going five innings a game the first month and a half (in 2010). Adding a couple of innings every start will get me there quicker. We’ll just have to see where we are at when we get to that 170-ish range.”
In the first two months of 2010, Morrow pitched 57 innings and walked 34 batters. In the ensuing months, he pitched 89 more innings and walked just 32, effectively cutting his walk rate almost in half. Fewer walks leads to fewer pitches thrown. He expects to lower that rate even further this year.
“If you’re averaging 20 pitches an inning and just pitching five innings, you’re throwing more pitches than somebody who’s averaging 13 pitches and going seven,” reasons Morrow. “When you’re out there for long innings — those 30-pitch innings — that’s really what wears you down.
“If you go out and throw one 35-pitch inning, it’s worse than throwing 50 pitches over four innings. It wears you out more.”
Fewer base runners also adds up to fewer high-stress situations.
“It’s the difference between cruising along with nobody on in the third inning versus runners on first and third with one out in the seventh,” said Morrow. “Maybe you’re putting more into that situation because there’s just that much more adrenaline.”
Those are issues for another day. On this day, the Rays and the adrenaline, were out of the equation.