In the eighth round of the 2017 MLB draft, Cleveland selected RHP Eli Morgan out of Gonzaga.
Morgan stood 5-foot-10 but possessed the best change-up of any pitcher in his draft class, and he put it to good use in his half-season stint with Mahoning Valley, striking out 58 batters in 35.0 innings and holding a nasty 1.03 ERA. His FIP was a mindboggling 0.89.
Morgan began the 2018 season as the opening day starter for the Single-A Lake County Captains and the former Zag is turning heads, giving up one earned run in his two starts through 12.0 innings pitched. He’s struck out 17 batters and walked none.
The pride of Rancho Palos Verdes, California wasn’t on many prospect rankings to begin the 2017 season, but if he can keep putting on performances like he has through his first two starts, people are going to start taking notice.
Morgan spoke with Covering the Corner about his filthy change-up, his unorthodox workouts and playing Fortnite with his teammates in this exclusive interview.
Brian Hemminger (Covering the Corner): I heard that you’re a pretty good golfer.
Eli Morgan: I’d like to think so. In Mahoning, I got to play a couple times, same thing in spring training. It’s still too cold to get out right now in Lake County. There’s definitely a lot of golfers on this team, a couple really good ones actually. (Ernie) Clement is probably a four or five handicap, he’s ridiculous.
Brian Hemminger: What’s yours?
Eli Morgan: Not close to that. Bogey golf is good enough for me (laughs). It’s good enough to have fun and not get frustrated.
Brian Hemminger: A lot of the guys are really into video games as a way to kill time, relieve stress, even bond with teammates that don’t speak English as well. Is that something you’ve been doing since it’s too cold to golf?
Eli Morgan: The game for me and basically everyone right now is Fortnite. We’ve got a couple different squads that play every night. We play a ton of that. I’d like to think I’m pretty good. I’ll have to give Ulysses Cantu the Fortnite god spot on this team. He’s pretty nasty.
Brian Hemminger: What about Netflix? Is there a show that you’re binge-watching right now?
Eli Morgan: I always go back to The Office. I’ve seen it like three or four times through. Finding a new show is hard. I’ve watched some of the Netflix originals like Stranger Things, things like that, but I just don’t have the commitment to keep watching them and I always end up back watching The Office (laughs). I’m not upset about that either.
Brian Hemminger: When you were trying to get into college baseball, Gonzaga seemed like the only school that gave you a shot. What did that mean to you?
Eli Morgan: They were the only D1 school that gave me an offer with a month left to go in my senior year of high school. It was pretty cool that I had any offers whatsoever and that it ended up being such a good fit for me and I ended up thriving there.
Brian Hemminger: Do you have any theories as to why you weren’t getting attention out of high school? Was it because you weren’t six feet tall? There does seem to be a bit of prejudice against shorter pitchers just like with quarterbacks.
Eli Morgan: I don’t throw all that hard now and I threw even slower in high school. I was a late bloomer. I was probably 5-foot-9 and there was another 25 pounds I hadn’t put on yet so I was way undersized by even college standards. Velocity is another thing. It’s one thing for college coach to look at someone’s stats, but you don’t know what level of high school ball they’re playing at. The times I’d go to showcases, it’s tough to stand out in a crowd of hundreds when you were only throwing in the low 80s. That was a big thing. I finally gained some velocity, but it was almost too little too late. Luckily, Gonzaga gave me a shot.
Brian Hemminger: You definitely took advantage of that opportunity. By the time you were done, you were the Friday night starter, you won the Golden Cleats award and you were wowing people in your offseason league in Alaska. You gave a lot of credit to your pitching coach in college right?
Eli Morgan: Yeah, both pitching coaches I had at college and also my high school pitching coach have been extremely helpful. I still go back to my high school every offseason and he helps tune me up with some bullpens. I have some really good support staff with him, my college pitching coaches, my family and other coaches. They’ve all made it really easy to progress.
Brian Hemminger: From reading through your Twitter feed and looking at other interviews you’ve done, it seems like you’re a real student of the game and you care a lot about the idea of pitching. Is Greg Maddux a pitcher you look up to?
Eli Morgan: Definitely yeah. I don’t have the type of movement or location he did but I’m trying. When you don’t have overpowering stuff, you have to be a student of the game to figure out how to get guys out, rather than knowing your stuff is good enough to get guys out on its own. That’s something that the pitching coaches of my past instilled in me, learning about the game rather than focusing entirely on velocity or how wicked your curveball is. You can get the same results by learning how to pitch.
Brian Hemminger: A fun side effect is the fact that your velocity has been ticking up. You’re in the low 90s now, right?
Eli Morgan: Yeah, that’s something I’m still working on, trying to stay in the low 90s instead of the upper 80s and touching 90. I’m almost there at this point.
Brian Hemminger: Is that something from the offseason strength and conditioning programs you’ve done with the Indians? I know they have some programs which have had great success with adding velocity.
Eli Morgan: Yeah, definitely. I did go to one of our strength camps there. They were really good at keeping me healthy on the field and working around any tweaks I’d produced. It was nice to have a full, healthy offseason. I felt like I made a lot of strides in that regard.
Brian Hemminger: How does it feel being stretched out this year? The Indians are always really careful with college pitchers, not letting them go more than three innings in games the year they drafted them due to the workload they’ve already had.
Eli Morgan: It’s nice. That’s the fun part about starting, getting to play most of the game. Pitching at any point is fun but this is more of a realistic starting feel compared to Mahoning where we were limited with our innings, but I understand why they were doing it, keeping us healthy in our first half season. It’s a lot more fun being stretched out.
Brian Hemminger: When it’s your day to pitch, are you the type of guy that doesn’t want anyone near them, really intense, or are you more loose? What are you like on pitching days?
Eli Morgan: It changes with the game and scenario, but every opening start I’ve ever had, I don’t even want people to look at me. There’s a lot of adrenaline going in that game, a lot of nerves. I’d say after that, I’m a little more loose and laid back and not as serious before the game. Even though I’m still taking my start very seriously, it’s less nerves and anxiety leading up to it so it allows me to be a little more laid back and free before the start.
Brian Hemminger: I’ve heard one of the biggest differences between college and pro ball is you get a bit more say in your pitches instead of throwing what the coach tells you to throw. How are you taking advantage of that?
Eli Morgan: Yeah, rather than relying on my college pitching coach to put down what he thinks I should throw, I have to be more studious. If I’m pitching game two, I have to pay attention in game one, see what the hitters are doing and try to develop a gameplan to attack hitters. It’s nice being able to call my own game. I feel like I have a pretty decent idea how to read hitters when they’re up there based on their first swing, their stance, stuff like that. I definitely like the freedom of getting to call my own game.
Brian Hemminger: You have some unique training regimens, throwing 150 pitches a day in Gonzaga to keep your arm loose. Do you like being in a system like the Indians that encourages some of those unorthodox approaches like what Trevor Bauer does with his arm?
Eli Morgan: Definitely. They’re one of the few programs that really gets it in regards to arm care. Many other programs think since you only get 100 pitches a start, if you waste your bullets leading up to that, you’re not going to have anything left or be ready, and that’s completely backwards.
The way I see it, and the way the Indians see it, is if you’re going to throw 100 pitches, you have to be prepared to throw 100 pitches. Just like with distance running. If you’re going to run a 10K, you aren’t just going to jog a quarter mile each day and expect to be able to run a 10K. You have to train for the 10K to be able to do that.
It’s the same thing with pitching. If you’re going through the motions in the four days leading up to it with no intensity in your throwing, that’s when you break down. You don’t break down and get injured from playing high intensity catch every day because that’s how your body gets used to it. That’s how you actually stay healthy. It’s nice being in a program that actually gets that. They’re very understanding of long toss and some of the stuff I did at Gonzaga, they do here. Anything that’s different, they’re very open ears about and they’ve been very good with allowing me to do what I think is best for my body and they think the same way anyways.
Brian Hemminger: Another unorthodox training program is the weighted balls. That’s something the Indians are pretty high on, have you tried that yet?
Eli Morgan: Yeah we had that at Gonzaga. My sophomore year it was implemented and my pitching coach said, “Do it for a month, then after that, it’s up to you.” I ended up doing it for about 2-3 months. It felt good on my arm but it felt like I lost command on my off speed pitches, so I stopped doing that.
With the Indians, it was the same thing, try it for a month and if you don’t like it, don’t do it anymore. I ended up not doing it until spring training because since I hadn’t done it all of my junior year, they didn’t want me to start doing it fresh. I settled on a lighter workload on the weighted balls where it’s more of a warm-up as opposed to velocity progression training and that felt really good. The thought process behind it was if you can get your first 10 or so throws with weighted balls, by the time you’re with a baseball and a partner, you’ll be at 60 feet with some decent velocity on the ball rather than having 10 or 12 warm up lob throws. They’ve actually through some research that those are the more dangerous of the throws, the ones with less than full intensity.
Brian Hemminger: You mentioned losing command of your off speed pitches briefly, one of the pitches you’re most widely known for is your change-up. It was widely reported that you had the best change-up out of any pitcher in the 2017 MLB draft and Baseball America said you had the best change-up in the Indians farm system. What goes into having a great change-up?
Eli Morgan: Your grip has to be something you’re comfortable with. The arm deception, if you’re slowing up your arm speed, good hitters are going to pick up on that. You also have to stay consistent with your delivery. If you’re changing your throwing motion on any pitch, especially nowadays with all the video that is available, you’ll be exposed. It goes back to the throwing regimen we talked about. Some programs don’t want you throwing all that often between starts, but between starts is when you refine your craft. If you’re limited to 35 throws a day, you’re not going to be able to work on anything.
Here, we’re free for however many throws we want to make. If I want to throw 15 change-ups, I have the time and they’re gonna cut the time out for me to do that. I had a similar situation in Gonzaga where I was able to get a lot of change-ups in during catch each day, get used to the grip, get used to the arm action and that’s been basically the whole difference between the change-ups I had earlier in my baseball career and the one that I have now that’s been really successful.
Brian Hemminger: Danny Salazar did a rehab assignment in Mahoning Valley last year while you were there. Did you get a chance to talk to him at all? He has one of the nastiest change-ups in the big leagues.
Eli Morgan: I didn’t get a chance to talk to him really because he was starting the day he was there, but I got to watch his pre-game bullpen session and that was really fun to watch. His pitches are very nasty.
Brian Hemminger: Did you set any goals for yourself for the 2018? Is there anything specific you wanted to accomplish?
Eli Morgan: I don’t think I was necessarily bad with it last year, but I wanted to walk less guys. That’s been a big goal. Watching someone like Shane Bieber be so successful with the best walk-rate in all of the minors, that’s something I want to replicate as best I can. By doing that, it’s by going after hitters. I feel my best pitches are my off-speed pitches but if I can go out there and be more comfortable throwing fastballs, in return I’ll be able to throw more strikes and hopefully walk less batters. All that intertwined will hopefully keep me from walking as many batters this year, but it all started months ago with the improved workout regimen to get more velocity on my fastball so I can use it more and rely on the off-speed less.
You can follow Eli on Twitter @EliiMorgan.