Morris' latest outing Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers was an eerie repeat of the other two times he stepped on the hill. Morris pitched well the first time through the lineup, then Dodgers batters started hitting the ball like it was batting practice in the Pirates' 11-2 loss at Chavez Ravine.
"It's not puzzling. It doesn't matter what pitch you throw, it's just location and how sharp it is," Morris said. "The second time around and the third time around, my location has been off, so that's where the trouble has been."
Morris battled with the same problems throughout spring training, but shrugged off most of his performances as preparatory work. But those same problems that troubled him throughout seven weeks of workouts and Grapefruit League games -- he had an 0-3 record and 8.32 earned run average in the spring -- followed him north to become a major issue.
"You've just got to continue with what you're doing in the first," Morris said. "I don't know why I'm not as sharp later on, but obviously them seeing more pitches as the game goes on gives them an advantage, so the location's really important at that point." -Keith Barnes, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The cheap and easy answer would be to say that Morris is just washed up, and indeed that may turn out to be the case. His peripherals (particularly K/9) have been in slow-but-steady decline for more than five years now, and when I went to his second start of the year last week, his fastball was sitting in the mid-80s. If you go out and hunt rhinos with a popgun, it shouldn't be any surprise if you end up getting trampled.
That said, I was intrigued by the piece's implication that Morris's struggles don't start until the second or third time through a batting order. If that's true, then the simplest solution might be to take him out before he has a chance to face hitters for the second or third time, by moving him into Dumatrait's role as the team's long reliever. Three games isn't much of a sample, so I went back and looked at Morris's performace in the first two innings of all of his Pirate starts in 2007 and 2008, a grouping of 14 mostly-poor games. If this is a real, potentially-exploitable trend, I figured, it'd probably have started to show up in his games last year as well.
How big was the difference? Pretty huge, it turns out. In Morris's 14 starts in black and gold, he had a RA of 4.82 in the first and second innings. In all other innings combined, he had a RA of 8.17. (I used straight runs allowed rather than earned runs because it helped with a potential source of error - scorers' error/hit calls can vary widely from stadium to stadium, and Morris would've had substantially the same defense backing him in both samples from any given game anyway). I'm not sure what the normal split is for pitchers, but 3.5 runs per nine sure feels like a lot, doesn't it?
That doesn't necessarily mean that I want to see Morris shifted to the pen; there are a lot of potential caveats to my little look at things. The manager's decision tree is a big contaminating factor on inning-by-inning samples (for example, a starter usually won't get pulled until he's tired or pitching badly, which badly skews his aggregate performance in later innings). There are also questions about how well he'd handle an irregular workload or deal with runners inherited from other pitchers, and logistical issues like which of the varying unappetizing candidates would take his rotation spot, or whether the team would do better to give those innings to someone like Dumatrait or Taubenheim in the hope of mining some future value from those guys. There's even a question of whether a middle reliever with a 4.80-ish ERA is something worth having. Still, it might be worth keeping this idea in mind in case Morris is still getting smacked around at the end of May.