CLEVELAND -- It’s hard to know exactly how a starting pitcher will handle a transition to the bullpen, but Guardians manager Terry Francona was confident from the beginning of the season that Eli Morgan would become the team’s secret weapon.
We’re two months into the season and Morgan is arguably the Guardians’ most reliable arm in the bullpen. His perfect eighth inning on Tuesday afternoon helped Cleveland take a 6-3 victory in the first game of the doubleheader against the Rangers at Progressive Field, before his team lost in the nightcap, 6-3. And once again, Morgan was untouchable.
Sometimes it takes a move to the bullpen for starters to find their groove, and when the Guardians didn’t have an open spot in the rotation for Morgan to start the year, he was forced to try his new role. We witnessed a similar situation last season with Cal Quantrill, who thrived in relief after opening the year in the ‘pen. But somehow, Morgan may be enjoying the transition even more.
“I kind of was joking around with Eli the other day,” said Quantrill, who gave up three runs on eight hits and one walk in seven strong innings in Game 1. “That's how I figured out how to get big league hitters out, too. … Sometimes it takes going out to the ‘pen and just figuring out yourself and what it is that gets big league hitters out. I think what Eli is doing right now is both maintainable and fantastic.”
Morgan has allowed just one run over his past 17 innings (0.53 ERA), allowing just four hits and two walks with 21 strikeouts in 11 games since the beginning of May. Entering Tuesday, his 21 strikeouts since May 1 were tied for the third most by a reliever in the American League. He’s already advanced from being an arm that’s used in blowouts or strictly in long relief to a go-to guy in crucial situations, as he picked up his fifth consecutive hold following with his scoreless eighth inning against the Rangers.
“It doesn’t matter whether he’s starting or relieving,” Guardians bullpen coach Brian Sweeney said. “He knows what his strengths are. He knows what he has to do when he gets on the mound. He’s adjusted really well to the bullpen, and it’s pretty cool to see the success he’s having.”
So how did Morgan go from a rookie with a 5.34 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP to a lights-out reliever? The move to the bullpen was more than just a change of scenery.
Allowing Morgan to be used in a different role frees him up to attack hitters in a completely different way. Because his workload is lighter, he’s seen his average fastball velocity tick up from 90.5 mph to 91.7 mph. That’s far from overpowering, but it’s his changeup that makes 91 mph somehow look a lot faster.
Morgan entered Tuesday averaging 75.5 mph on his change. That 16.2 mph difference in velocity between those two offerings has made it ridiculously challenging for hitters to figure out. Ninety pitchers have thrown at least 90 fastballs and 90 changeups this year. None of them has a difference in velocity as drastic as Morgan’s, with San Diego’s Nick Martinez having the next-closest difference at 13 mph (93 mph heater, 80 mph changeup).
“Everyone on the opposition is always aware of the changeup and when it's coming,” Guardians pitching coach Carl Willis said. “That makes it difficult because he has so much separation in speeds with the changeup and the fastball. … He makes them swing the bat, and his stuff is Major League stuff.”
Rarely will Morgan ever face the same hitter twice in relief. That allows him to rely on fewer pitches, because he doesn’t have to worry about not giving away everything that he has to his opponents early in games. This season, Morgan has mostly stuck to his four-seamer, changeup and slider, while he also mixed in a cutter and curveball in 2021.
This new approach has him sitting at the top of Statcast leaderboards. Entering Tuesday, he ranked in the top 5% of the league in five categories, including expected ERA (2.24), strikeout percentage (35.6%), xwOBA (.215), wOBA (.185) and expected batting average (.181). In 2021, 10.7% of the contact against him was solid, as opposed to just 5.8% this year.
It’s still a small sample size, and the future for Morgan as a starter isn’t off the table. But if there’s anything the Guardians learned in the first two months of the 2022 season, it’s that Morgan has more versatility than anyone predicted heading into the year.
“Nobody's saying he can't start.” Francona said. “I wouldn't remotely say that. But if you limit him to once through the order, I think he turns into a weapon.”