When the Royals took a flyer on Franklin Morales before the season started, I didn't think much of it. I couldn't remember if he was a starter or a reliever without looking it up. Then I looked it up. He had a bunch of poor seasons under his belt before coming here. In 142.1 innings last year between starting and relieving, he amassed -0.6 fWAR.
In fact, looking at his career stats before this year, there was hardly any reason to believe he would do well. Coming into this season, Morales had 423.2 major league innings under his belt. In that time, he had an 18.2 percent strikeout rate, an 11.0 percent walk rate, and a 4.72 ERA / 4.85 FIP / 4.64 xFIP triple-slash line. Now, Morales spent all his previous years in a Rockies or Red Sox jersey, which aren't great parks for pitchers. WAR adjusts for that though, and his career fWAR before this year was 0.6.
Then he joined the Royals, and he's having the best season of his career.
In 57 innings of work, the 29-year-old lefty has a 16.7 percent strikeout rate, 5.4 percent walk rate, and a 2.05 ERA / 2.81 FIP / 3.78 xFIP. Let's see how he has accomplished what he has.
The first things to note are his BABIP, which sits at .235, and his homer stats. At a 0.16 HR/9 rate and a 2.1 percent HR/FB, it's been very tough to hit a dinger against him. Those rates actually translate to just one home run given up. That's strange because Morales is not a strikeout artist, and he's always been a fly ball guy. Given his transition to a much more pitcher-friendly park with an amazing outfield defense, Morales' transition to a ground-ball pitcher (50.9 percent GB rate, 2nd highest of his career) is a little surprising.
There's a pretty clear reason why.
Check out that increase in sinker usage in 2015 with a corresponding decrease in his four-seam fastball usage. Morales now uses his four seamer, cutter, and sinker at about equal frequencies, but the increased pitches (sinker and cutter) are the pitches that generate grounders the most.
In addition, the sinker and cutter are the pitches that in 2015 he can throw for strikes and generate contact the best. Hitters swing at his sinker and cutter much more than his curveball and four seam.
It seems like the strategy is fairly clear - throw more of the pitches that can get strikes and generate weaker contact. It's worked fairly well for all his pitches. Hitters are performing worse in terms of BA and SLG against all his pitches compared to last year. The results (ERA / FIP / xFIP) show an improved pitcher.
Compared to his peers, his contact suppression sets him apart. By K% and BB%, a very close comparable is reliever Jason Motte of the Chicago Cubs. Motte has virtually identical strikeout and walk rates, but his 3.91 ERA / 3.62 FIP / 4.75 xFIP across 48.1 innings show just how much the BABIP and homer rate stuff affects Morales. His contact suppression, home park, and defense have allowed him to flourish in a relatively low-leverage role.
So what do the Royals do with him next year? Like Jason Frasor this year, they should do their best to sign him to a relatively cheap, short-term contract. Morales is rebuilding his value, and it makes sense to rebuild it a little more. Given his poor history and only one season of BABIP- and dinger suppression-fueled statistical prowess, teams might seek a little more certainty before shelling out bigger dollars.
The Royals need a lefty in the bullpen, and Morales seems as good as any. He hasn't been vulnerable to righties (.253 wOBA allowed vs. lefties, .237 wOBA allowed vs. righties) this year, but he has been in the past. It's possible that his increased sinker usage is helping him neutralize righties better. If he can manage to get both sides of the plate out, he's another weapon out of the stacked KC bullpen.