Your 2006 Giants: Morris is HEALED!
Remember when it was a big deal when you were a "6 Million Dollar Man"? It got you a beautiful wife like Farrah Fawcett Majors and powers like you couldn't believe. Well, Morris is the Giants' 9 million dollar per year man and, of course, Giants fans are curious about who we got. What exactly did we get for our money, a bionic man or damaged goods?
Obviously, we've gotten a pitcher with an injury history. We also got a pitcher who was a hands down ace once upon a lifetime (for a pitcher) ago, but not quite Tomko-rrific the past two years if you look at his ERA. Are we doomed to his FIP of around 4 ERA?
What's Under the Hood?
I decided to check his recent history in order to try to read the tea leaves about what type of pitcher we are going to get in 2006. What people (and I include myself in this) sometimes forget is that FIP is an idealized ERA based on his skill components, i.e. everything being equal (and we know they never are) his ERA should look like FIP given his components. But what if his components were compromised? FIP works as an overall, odds favor aggregate basis, but not always on an individualized basis, if there were extentuating circumstances. And I believe there is in Morris' case.
Here's the chronology as I see it. He has a number of good years after returning from his Tommy John surgery, relieving for one year in 2000, then starting from 2001 to 2003. But 2004 was a bad season overall for him when it was discovered why he pitched so badly: he got arthroscopic shoulder surgery, where his frayed labrum was cleaned up on November 30, 2004. He then follows with a mediocre (for him; good otherwise) season in 2005 that is marred, however, by a very poor second half after a very strong first half. So which is the real Matt Morris, the first half or the second?
Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News
Here comes the doctor part: I think the first half is closer to the "real" Matt Morris than the second half. I did some research on-line looking for recovery periods for that type of surgery and found that he didn't have a lot of time to build up his muscle afterward. He had nearly 3 months - about 11.5 weeks - before he started throwing on February 19th, 2005. According to one site, the patient is asked to refrain from using the shoulder and arm - even if feels good - for 3 to 4 weeks after the procedure, except for a strict, limited set of exercises. After perhaps 2-6 weeks, when any pain has settled, the resistance can be increased and weight training started, but initially, for the first 2-4 weeks of weight training, only very light weights should be used. It was also noted that recovery would continue over a few months.
So the net I get from that is that he couldn't really use his shoulder for anything for one month, then could not do any heavy lifting for another month and a half (6 weeks), meaning that after his shoulder had atrophied for a couple of months, he could start exercising unhindered, meaning he could actually start throwing, in early February.
There was no way he got his shoulder back to game shape by spring training given all the restrictions on his usage of his shoulder post-surgery. And I think that was reflected by his needing to be placed on the disabled list to start the 2005 season. So once he started the season, his arm was finally built up enough to match his strength that he had before but, and I think this is a key but, he was not able to build in the endurance that would be necessary to pitch well throughout the season.
If you split his season by the point at which it is clear he started his slide down, which is the second game after the All-Star Game (and his first game, while OK, was marked by a large number of hits) which was on July 23rd, here is the difference:
2005 Split Point - H9 - W9 - K9 - HR9 - WHIP - ERA
Pre-July 23rd - 8.5 - 1.4 - 6.2 - 0.6 - 1.10 - 3.09
Post-July 23rd - 10.9 - 2.1 - 4.3 - 1.4 - 1.45 - 5.06
However, looking at his game stats closely, there was even another split within, splitting the season into 3 parts. He was very dominating, similar to his post-TJ career, when he started the season, but as the season wore on, his stats got worse, though the last third looks better in some ways but note that his key K9 rate fell by nearly 1 K:
2005 splits - H9 - W9 - K9 - HR9 - WHIP - ERA
First third - 8.3 - 1.5 - 6.5 - 0.6 - 1.09 - 3.13 (ending Jul 4th; actually nearly half the season)
Second third - 11.1 - 2.0 - 4.6 - 1.4 - 1.45 - 5.01 (ending Aug 20th)
Last third - 10.3 - 1.9 - 3.8 - 1.1 - 1.36 - 4.43 (ending Sep 27th)
An interesting data point that suggests that it was only his arm strength affecting his pitching, he was able to keep his K/W ratio at or above the 2.0 ratio that is the minimum you want to see from your pitcher. So despite his arm strength being so weakened by the end, he was able to keep his control good enough to keep that ratio in good stead.
You can see further how up and down 2005 was month by month, as his strength deteriorated during the season:
Mon - H9 - W9 - K9 - HR9 - WHIP - ERA
April - 6.9 - 1.6 - 10.1 - 0.5 - 0.94 - 2.12
May - 8.9 - 1.6 - 6.8 - 1.1 - 1.18 - 4.07
Jun - 8.8 - 1.6 - 4.4 - 0.2 - 1.15 - 3.23
Jul - 10.1 - 0.8 - 5.7 - 1.4 - 1.21 - 4.36
Aug - 11.6 - 1.9 - 4.0 - 0.9 - 1.50 - 4.96
Sep - 9.9 - 2.9 - 4.1 - 1.3 - 1.42 - 4.15
He was like a battery, though, his strength would ebb and flow through the months. And while obviously there is the small sample effect happening when going by month, particularly for a pitcher, it does show that he was generally trending downward throughout the year as he weakened.
Morris is Healthy
Given that he is a veteran starter who has shown the resiliency to bounce back from adversity and continue to do well, the downtrend is more a sign that his shoulder, while now healthy, was not 100% in terms of fitness and it tired as the season wore on, particularly by June. His second half fade, which could be a sign of a pitcher in his 30's starting their path towards retirement, does not appear to be age-related based on how well he did initially in the season. He was dominating those first few starts he had and I find it unlikely that someone who could be so dominant could suddenly find it switched off and start on the downside of his career.
I don't know about future years - don't know how soon a labrum fraying would recur - but for 2006, I think Morris is entering into his first healthy year after the shoulder surgery so he should be back to normal. Based on how well he did in the first part of the season, he should be able to return to what he had been able to do from 2001-2003, which was very good.
In addition, he has shown an intelligence about his abilities and capabilities, as shown by how he was able to adjust from the flame-thrower he was early in his career to flourishing while a softer thrower, plus learning and mastering a variety of breaking pitches, like a changeup , to help him stay relatively effective. In addition, his problems with the gopherball should be ameliorated because he is now pitching at AT&T Park for him home park. Homers vs. lefties have been a problem and AT&T will help fix that for him.
So I think he should be able to return to the form he had from 2002 to 2003, where he ERA ranged from 3.42 to 3.76 with a mean around 3.60 expected from him. His K-rate might be as high but his walk rate has dropped since then as well, plus pitching at AT&T will help lower his homerun-itis that has afflicted him the past 3 seasons. With a strong offense humming again in SF, he should be winning anywhere from 15-20 games this year while providing good pitching. Schmidt and he will make a good pair at the start of the rotation, quite a contrast in style.
I think Morris will be worth the extra money he got over mediocrities who were getting $7M per year in 2006 and will be worth it over the life of the contract if he is able to avoid the injury bug. I am a bit worried that it might rear its ugly head by 2008 but by then hopefully all our young pitching prospects would be ready to take over the mantle at the top of the rotation, Cain, Lowry, maybe Hennessey, Valdez, Wilson, Sanchez, and we won't need Morris to be a top rotation guy, he'll just be overpaid or injured.