Friday, July 6, 2012
Updated: July 7, 12:08 PM ET
Can Franklin Morales keep it up?
By Jeremy Lundblad
Thousands of pitches before Franklin Morales emerged as a possible fifth starter for the Boston Red Sox, he was a future ace for the Colorado Rockies.
Morales posted a 1.29 ERA this June, offering a glimpse at the pitcher he was once thought to be. Five years earlier, Morales was similarly dominating as a 21-year-old phenom. Those days were supposed to be over. Perhaps they aren't.
Once among baseball's top left-handed pitching prospects, Morales frequently garnered mention alongside Clayton Kershaw and David Price. ESPN.com prospect guru Keith Law hailed him as "a potential No. 1 starter with two plus pitches." Law had Morales as the top international prospect and eighth overall going into the 2008 season.
This was no hyperbole. Baseball America had an identical ranking for Morales. He'd already dominated down the stretch for the Rockies in 2007. The Rockies handed him a spot in the rotation going into 2008.
Three years later, the Rockies gave up. Morales was shipped to Boston in May 2011 in exchange for some cash.
A 25-year-old lefty with a 97 mph fastball isn't supposed to fall in your lap.
So what happened? Did the Rockies rush Morales?
He was just 21 when they inserted him into a pennant chase, still the youngest lefty in Rockies history. The Red Sox haven't thrown a pitcher that young since Brian Rose in 1997. Coincidentally, Boston gave up on Rose when he was just 24, sending him to the Rockies.
Morales initially lived up to the hype. Going 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in his final four starts of 2007, he helped guide the Rockies to the postseason. Morales then became the youngest National League pitcher to appear in the World Series since Steve Avery in 1991.
Even after a disastrous Game 1 outing (7 ER in 2/3 IP), the future was bright for Morales. The following offseason, he reached top-10 prospect status. In 2008, he broke camp in the rotation.
But the rest of his Rockies career would be a tale of inconsistency, frustration and wildness. Demotions to the minors led to a permanent move to the bullpen. From 2008 until his trade to Boston in May 2011, Morales posted a 5.33 ERA with 72 walks in 108 innings.
Many Rockies fans, frustrated by his wasted promise, welcomed his departure. Gone were four seasons of rushed mechanics, control problems and failed expectations. Called up in his place was Matt Daley, a 28-year-old reliever with a 6.28 ERA in Triple-A.
In Boston, Morales appeared to be little more than pitching depth. Then-GM Theo Epstein was measured in his optimism, calling Morales "somebody we think has some upside if he's throwing strikes consistently."
More than a year later, Morales' first three starts with Boston make that seem like an understatement.
Since filling in for the injured Josh Beckett, Morales is 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA. He's fanned 24 in 18 innings as a starter. More significantly for him, Morales has walked just three.
Over the past 30 years, only three southpaws have recorded seven or more strikeouts in three straight starts: Bruce Hurst, Jon Lester and now Morales.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's the first left-handed pitcher ever with seven or more strikeouts in his first three starts for the Red Sox.
On Saturday, he'll look to be the first pitcher since Pedro Martinez to fan seven in his first four starts for Boston.
Admittedly, the competition hasn't been elite, as Morales counted the Cubs and Mariners among his first three opponents. Yet, it's hard to escape the idea that this is the Morales the Rockies thought they had.
The main difference is control.
Back in 2010, Morales threw strikes only 59 percent of the time and walked 17 percent of the batters he faced. This year, that's up to 66 percent strikes, while he's walking just 6 percent of batters.
Opposing hitters forced Morales to throw strikes. Often, he couldn't. Now that he's rediscovered the strike zone, they are starting to chase pitches again.
Morales never lost his fastball; he just learned to contain it.
Along with Felix Doubront and Lester, the Red Sox now have three left-handed starters who can top 96 mph on the radar gun. Consider that only nine other southpaws have reached that speed in a start this season.
Among active starters, only the Rays' combo of David Price and Matt Moore averages a higher velocity on their fastball than the 94.2 mph that Morales has in his starts.
Morales' fastball is more than just velocity. Among lefties who have thrown 400 fastballs this season, only Moore and Aroldis Chapman get a greater percentage of swings and misses.
With Daisuke Matsuzaka back on the disabled list, Morales is seemingly locked into a rotation spot for the foreseeable future. Could he realize his potential?
Having debuted in the same year as Clay Buchholz (2007), Morales is far removed from prospect status. But at 26, he's just seven months older than the probable American League rookie of the year (Yu Darvish).
Morales wouldn't be the first top prospect who experienced arrested development only to break out. Edwin Jackson was a top-10 prospect who took six years to find consistency. Five years after he was a top-10 prospect, Gavin Floyd finally emerged for the White Sox.
In each case, it took a change of scenery and a chance.
Like Jackson and Floyd, Morales probably isn't a future ace. But that doesn't mean he can't be a solid starter.
Sometimes expectations have to disappear before they can be realized.