Franklin Morales‘ two recent spot starts for the injured Josh Beckett have been excellent. in 11 IP, Morales has given up 4 ER on 11 hits while walking 1 and striking out 17(!). What looked like just a fill-in performance has become something more. It would be almost impossible for Morales to keep up this pace, but is it possible that he’s finally figuring it out?
Not so long ago, Franklin Morales was one of the top prospects in baseball. A flame-throwing left-hander in the Rockies organization, Baseball America ranked the Morales eighth best prospect overall at the start of the 2008 season. Boasting a mid-nineties fastball, hard curveball and a change-up he could throw in any count, the southpaw Morales was going to be the one who would finally break the Coors curse and become the ace the Rockies had been looking for.
Unfortunately for Colorado fans, the young Venezuelan did not pan out as they had hoped. Though blessed with top-of-the-rotation stuff, Morales’ command left much to be desired. Following a decent cameo in the 2007 season, Morales came back for 2008 and showed the wildness which had afflicted him in his minor league career, walking over six batters per nine innings. His control issues necessitating a switch to the bullpen, Morales performed a bit better in 2009, walking slightly over five batters per nine and striking out more than a hitter an inning to post a 4.50 ERA. 2010, however, marked his worse season yet, as the young lefty walked a jaw-dropping 7.5 hitters per nine and and gave up almost two home runs per nine. He bounced back in the first half of 2011 with a BB/9 of about five and actually had his best season, posting a 3.86 ERA and allowing only ten hits in fourteen innings out of the Rockies bullpen. But in late May the Red Sox came calling, looking for a lefty reliever after the release of Hideki Okajima. The Rockies, perhaps sick of Morales’ control issues, were happy to oblige.
Maybe the plate is smaller in Colorado. Maybe he didn’t feel comfortable in pinstripes. As soon as Morales moved to Beantown, however, he discovered that he could throw strikes, and what’s more, that he was an effective pitcher if he did so. He slashed his walk rate by two free passes per nine and raised his strikeout rate to 8.6 from 7.1 and became an effective and reliable weapon out of the ‘pen for the Red Sox.
Morales built on last year’s success to get even better this season. Only a year removed from a K/BB ratio of 1.38 as a Rockie, his 4.11 mark this year ranks in the top 30 in baseball. Even more excitingly, there are signs that Morales’ success may be for real. Thanks to his improved command, Morales has reduced his fastball usage to 64% and is throwing significantly more change-ups and curveballs than years past, perhaps indicating that he is getting ahead more in counts and is able to attack hitters on his terms. Batters are swinging at ten percent more of his pitches outside the strike zone and hitting fewer of them. Morales’ enhanced ability to get hitters to chase is the primary driver behind his well-above-average 12.2 swinging strike percentage. Perhaps most enticingly of all, Morales has shown through two (admittedly short) starts that he can maintain his mid-nineties velocity even as his pitch count climbs into starter territory.
Though the early returns have been very promising, Morales is far from a sure thing. He has yet to be really stretched out as a starter and still needs to prove he can maintain his velocity deep into games. In addition, Morales’ 5.4 %HR/FB ratio is extremely low, especially considering he plays his home games in the Fenway bandbox (though it’s worth noting that Fenway is about neutral in allowing home runs to right-handed hitters). There is also the lingering question of whether Morales’ control problems will crop up again; one good year is not enough to remove memories of several years of struggles. All in all, however, the young lefty’s success appears sustainable.
It has never been a question of if Franklin Morales had the stuff to be good but whether he could harness it. If he has, Boston may have found a remedy for their ailing rotation.
For more on Morales and the Red Sox, check out BoSox Injection