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Eli Morgan and the slider that doesn’t slide

Eli Morgan is getting the most out of a slider that refuses to move

Cleveland Guardians v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Eli Morgan is known for an electric changeup that he mixes with a rising fastball, but he’s using a pitch that barely moves at all to achieve excellent results so far in 2023.

Last season, Morgan was primarily a three-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball 55.3% of the time, his changeup 26.8% of the time, his slider 16.8% of the time, and a curveball once in a blue moon, around 1% of the time. For his first 33 innings of 2022, he had a 1.62 ERA and a 2.48 FIP, carried by a changeup and a slider that were 3.08 and 2.88 runs above average, respectively, and a fastball that was 1.97 runs above average. The rest of the season, his changeup and fastball were below average, by 2.89 runs for the former and 0.34 runs for the latter, while his slider remained a steady 2.73 runs above average.

These numbers suggest that major league hitters began to look for and time up Morgan’s changeup as the 2022 season went on. In doing so, they turned his best pitch into a liability.

It’s too early to draw many conclusions about the run values of Morgan’s pitches in 2023, but one thing we can observe is a noticeable change in his pitch mix so far. He has thrown his fastball 51%, his changeup 25%, and his slider 24% of the time, a roughly 4% decrease for his fastball from last year, and a 7% increase for his slider. It looks like Morgan and the Guardians have recognized that his slider is useful in keeping hitters from hunting his changeup if deployed correctly.

Ironically, what makes Morgan’s slider effective is a lack of movement. According to Baseball Savant. Morgan’s fastball in 2022 moves vertically 16% more than the average major league fastball vertically and 31% more horizontally. Morgan has also seen a 1.7 mph jump in average fastball velocity, which helps disrupt timing on his offspeed stuff more effectively. Meanwhile, his changeup moves 13% more than average vertically and 24% more than average horizontally. In contrast, the slider moves 8% less than average vertically, and 45% less than average horizontally.

In an age of sweeper sliders, Morgan is throwing something closer to a knuckle slider — it floats in with only spin-rate in only the 20th percentile among big leaguers. But, because that slider emerges from the same arm slot as the fastball and the changeup, hitters are expecting significant movement and end up befuddled when the pitch breaks and spins very little.

Let’s look at an example. On April 2, Morgan faced Tommy La Stella.

Starts him off with a nice fastball with rising action just above the zone, La Stella looks tempted but doesn’t offer. Morgan follows with another fastball.

This time the pitch gets away from Morgan a little bit, but you can see the rising action in the fastball and the amount of movement La Stella is tracking with it. Now for a slider.

It’s almost comical how little that pitch moves. Boop. Right there. You can see La Stella flinch, he thinks that pitch is going above the zone like the two fastballs he just saw, but, no, it ends up right in the zone. He is ripe for a dose of Morgan’s best now, the change.

La Stella shows how amazing major league hitters are by getting the bat to the ball on this one because look at how that pitch moves, especially in comparison with the slider. At this point, the count is even, and La Stella has seen three pitches with a lot of movement and break and one pitch that just popped in there. What’s a hitter supposed to expect at this point? It turns out that La Stella is guessing a rising fastball but he’s gonna get another slider:

Boop. Dotted it right in there as La Stella is ahead of it and under it, strikeout, inning over.

I love the idea of taking a slider that doesn’t slide and using it as a contrast pitch to your other two offerings that dance all over the plate, and I’m fascinated to see if Morgan and his catchers can keep ahead of other teams with a flat slider. I wouldn’t expect the slider to be used more than a quarter of the time, or it will lose its effectiveness — but in small doses, I think it will continue to be a real asset.

With that said, it’s time for the Eli Morgan Fan Club to decide what we should call a slider that doesn’t slide or a sweeper that doesn’t sweep. My idea is that rather than a slider, it’s a “stayer.” And since it’s a slider grip and what brief motion it has is sliding, we can combine the two words and call it a “slayer.”

In the meantime, I’ll be sitting here fascinated by the unique pitching approach of the Guardians’ Eli Morgan.