Key decision led to Francisco Morales' successful big-league debut


Francisco Morales' journey to the pitcher's mound in Seattle and his big-league debut Monday night began six years ago and took a positive turn three months ago.

Signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in July 2016, Morales' time as a starting pitcher in the Phillies' minor-league system was filled with ups and downs, including a frustrating season in which he pitched to a 6.94 ERA and walked 6.5 batters per nine innings at Double A Reading last year.

Before spring training this year, Phillies officials decided to move Morales to the bullpen.

It was not a demotion. It was a move to accentuate his strengths. 

Three months after the move, Morales pitched two scoreless innings, walked one and struck out three in the Phillies' 9-0 win at Seattle on Monday night.

Morales, 22, needed just 24 pitches to get through the seventh and eighth innings. Sixteen of the pitches were sliders, eight were fastballs.

That's just the way the Phillies player-development staff envisioned it when they moved Morales to the bullpen.

"He's leaning into what he's always been good at," director of pitching development Brian Kaplan said. 

As a starter, Morales worked from a windup and his pitch repertoire also included a changeup. He's ditched the changeup and has simplified his delivery to the stretch. That has helped his control.

Morales opened this season back at Double A. The right-hander was dominant. In 16 1/3 innings, he gave up just six hits and a run. He walked six and struck out 28.

Morales fastball topped out at 96.3 mph Monday night and averaged 93.6. His slider, which features hard, downward break, topped out at 88.5 and averaged 86.2. There's more there, too. In spring training, Phillies officials saw Morales' slider up to 91. His fastball has touched 99.

At 6-5, 260 pounds, Morales has the size and the stuff to grow into a dominant presence at the end of games. He has embraced the move to the bullpen.

"He loves the role," director of player development Preston Mattingly said. "It fits his personality well. With the stuff he has, he has a chance to pitch at the back of games."

Morales' conversion is not unlike the one Seranthony Dominguez made in 2018. He shifted from the rotation to the bullpen before that season and made a quick jump from the minors to the majors.

Morales was one of the top international pitching prospects when the Phillies signed him out of Venezuela for $720,000 in July 2016. Four years earlier, the Phils signed Ranger Suarez out of Venezuela for $25,000. Suarez pitched six shutout innings in Monday night's win at Seattle and was backed by homers from Jean Segura and Rhys Hoskins.

The Phils are 13-16. Their seven-game trip continues at Seattle on Tuesday night. Aaron Nola (1-3. 3.38) opposes lefty Robbie Ray (2-3, 4.38).

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