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Eli Morgan is a pitcher in the shadows

When you think about it though, who does know what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Game by game, anyone with an interest in Cleveland baseball is looking for a glimmer of hope in the pitching rotation. Ultimately Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and Shane Bieber will return, but that’s not now. Even when they do return, there's at least one place in the rotation (selfishly two) that still needs a consistent presence, and right now that’s hard to find. There are hints amid the myriad faces we’ve seen take the hill night after night, and in one of them, Eli Morgan, there’s a sense that with some refinement, they might have something on their hands.

Morgan is, in so many ways, a prototypical Cleveland pitching prospect. Selected in the eighth round back in 2017 he was then, as now, known for a strong K/BB ratio (4.08 in college) and great command, along with a wonderful changeup and a serviceable fastball. Hitting the majors makes that 89.7 mph fastball a bit less than serviceable, but finesse is his game. He averages 3.3 inches of horizontal movement on that four-seamer, which is 48% better than average, and key to his ability to get batters out.

Despite the not-great velocity, the strikeouts continue to pile up for Morgan. He’s struck out 25.3% of batters he’s faced — roughly in line with the rest of his career and a few ticks better than league average — while walking just 2.7% of batters. That second is more than half what we’ve seen from him in the past, and honestly an elite stat. This is part of what he needs to do to get hitters out since he only has one plus pitch in his changeup. What’s carrying Morgan is the pairing of that changeup with a slow — but movement-rich — fastball, and that location.

First, as you see, his fastball and change are pretty close in spin axis:

It’s not perfect, and it’s part of the refinement he needs, but it’s certainly something good. On top of that, despite being in the 10th percentile in fastball spin, it’s basically all active spin, meaning 98% of those 2193 average rotations per minute are influencing movement. His change is also highly active, 88% of the spin influencing movement. This is great news, and based on the movement profile of his changeup, it would only get better if he tweaked it to be more in line with his fastball. We’re talking Strasburg level drop. He doesn’t have a lot else in his repertoire right now, but this is a start, and coupled with the command, we’re looking at something potentially solid.

As to that command, Morgan is in rarified air when it comes to working the edges of the zone. Baseball Savant defines the “shadow” of the plate as anything right around the edge of the strike zone on this chart:

Morgan is 49th among qualified starters (out of a possible 279) in placing pitches in this area, which equals out to 43.2% of his total pitches. He trails only Aaron Civale in this among Cleveland starters, and like Civale, Morgan has to live off meshing pitches together, tunneling, and trickeration. It’s a good piece of the greater puzzle that will ultimately reveal his full potential. What’s neat though, on pitches thrown in that area, Morgan is third in all of baseball in inducing a strike — whether called, swung, or fouled — in that area at 27.3% of pitches. Jacob deGrom leads all of baseball at 30.6%, and Morgan is on the list sandwiched between $328 million worth of pitchers with Zach Eflin and Gerrit Cole.

This sounds good. And to a degree, it really is. The issue is the rest of the repertoire. The above spin chart shows he’s got a pretty gyro-rich slider, a pitch with only 35% active spin and that batters are slugging 1.305 on. He barely throws a curveball, only 12 recorded offerings. So it’s not like he’s got a wipeout pitch to make hitters just fall out of their shoes. He needs to work in the shadows, and by and large, he’s decently successful at it. He’s only allowed four hits when the ball is in the shadow of the plate, three singles and that dinger to Miguel Cabrera the other day.

This guy is, like so many others in the rotation right now, a work in progress. He’s also another test of Cleveland’s draft and development strategies, and their reliance on the idea that control is harder to develop than velocity. If Morgan could pick up a few more ticks, or turn his slider into something more deadly, or his curve for that matter, or even just get his four-seam and change to mesh in their spin axis more, we’re talking about a major piece for the rotation.

The Cleveland Pitching Factory is designed for this kind of “bits to put together” kind of pitcher. He’s going to get his chances to grow this year, so we’ll keep an eye, especially on that slider.

He could be good, but it’s up to Eli to write that book right now.