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razor-thin margin

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the cubs fouled off 11 pitches in the first inning last night. that's not including the foul bunt attempts by neifi perez; that's 11 swinging fouls. they also swung and missed 3 times. they swung and put the ball in play 6 times, with 3 of those falling for hits. so the cubs swung the bat 20 times in the first inning and got 3 base hits -- only one of which (hairston's double) was hit particularly hard.

which is a long-winded way of saying that they weren't exactly teeing off on morris. matt was far from sharp, but he wasn't throwing BP out there. over his 4 and 1/3 he induced 25 swinging fouls and 7 swinging strikes. hitters were missing his curveball (derek lee did it three times) and late on his fastball and cutter, popping it back the other way. they weren't yanking would-be doubles foul down the line, nor even fouling morris straight back; they just weren't getting good wood on his pitches.

well, not on most of them.

of the 23 batters he faced, morris put two strikes on 14 of them . . . . . . but 7 of them got hits and 8 reached base. worse yet, morris didn't strike a single one of them out. to go back to the first inning -- of his 36 pitches in that frame, more than half (19) came with two strikes on the hitter. the results: 9 foul balls, 7 balls, 2 hits, and 1 out. let me repeat that: he threw 19 two-strike pitches and got just 1 out.

you can interpret these breakdowns one of two ways. here's the happy interpretation: if morris keeps getting ahead of hitters like he did last night, keeps inducing the kind of swings he induced, he's going to be fine. over the course of the season, morris has held batters well below .200 after getting to 2 strikes; the cubs' .538 average with 2 strikes last night was just a fluke. and here's the unhappy interpretation: morris has faded to the point that he is just good enough to get beat; he can no longer put hitters away. over his last 115 innings -- since june 1 -- he has only struck out 60 batters while yielding 142 hits. his era in that span (which covers 19 starts) is 4.70.

i don't know which interpretation to believe; they both persuade me. i have a well-known man-crush on morris, for which reason i might tend to fall into the silver-lining camp; but as an objective matter he clearly retains the ability to put hitters in distress. even in the worst of his difficult second-half starts he has looked sharp for at least a few innings. but the dropoff in his strikeout rate -- which danup pointed out a couple weeks back -- is undeniably troubling. his career k rate is 6.5 per 9 innings; even last year, pitching with a bad shoulder, he fanned 5.8 per 9. but his 2005 rate is only 5.5 strikeouts per 9, and since june 1 it's just 4.7.

danup thinks it might be the beard; morris replaced the grizzly-adams shag with a ringo-starr scruff at right around the same time he stopped getting strikeouts. there are worse theories.

of no importance: can you name the detroit tiger pitcher who has issued just 7 non-intentional walks in 187 innings this season? best control pitcher since the 1890s . . . .
Update [2005-9-7 13:17:52 by lboros]: correction per sdelek, pitcher is a minnesota twin not a detroit tiger . . .