Morales capable of more than what numbers show

Hector Berrios likes to start his conversations about Williamsport Crosscutters pitcher Francisco Morales with a reminder the right-hander is just 18 years old. It’s an important part of Morales’ story.

It’s easy to see this mountain of a human being who stands 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 225 pounds and expect the world from him. It’s even easier to look at a radar gun and see him throwing 95 or 96 mph along with a wipeout slider and be puzzled about his statistics.

But Berrios wants to point out it’s not as easy as just rearing back and throwing.

“One of the things is sometimes fans don’t understand that he’s only 18 years old and possibly the youngest pitcher in this league facing 21, 22 and up to 25-year-olds,” the Cutters pitching coach said Saturday. “You see this big specimen of a man, but he’s really a baby. But what you see from him now is not what you’re going to see from him in the near future.”

Morales enters his next start with a 3-2 record by a 6.11 ERA. He’s allowed more hits (29) than innings pitched (28), and he’s walking more than six batters per nine innings. They’re not exactly the kind of numbers you’d expect from a player who Baseball America has as the ninth-best prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league system.

But they’re exactly the kind of numbers you’d expect from a player who is more than 3 1/2 years younger than the average player in the New York-Penn League. The Phillies signed Morales in 2016 and he skipped over playing in the Dominican Summer League and reported directly to the Gulf Coast League last summer where he was 3-2 with a 3.05 ERA as a 17-year-old.

He hasn’t quite found the same success this summer with the Crosscutters, though, especially in his last two outings. He last just two innings against Batavia almost two weeks ago and surrendered a pair of home runs in a six-run outing. His last time out against Vermont he walked four batters in four innings and gave up four earned runs.

“He has the stuff to think he can just overpower guys,” Berrios said. “It’s more finesse than just power. So we’re trying to get the balance between both.”

Morales has shown the flashes of brilliance of what makes him one of the top pitching prospects in the Phillies’ system. Against West Virginia on July 6, he struck out 10 over five innings, using a deadly fastball/slider combo which the Black Bears never quite figured out.

Against Tri-Valley on July 13, he allowed just one run in five innings and found dominance by challenging ValleyCats hitters with his fastball. Those are the type of games which Berrios tries to show Morales to give him an idea of what he’s capable of. But Berrios is also fighting a battle of the mental demons which come with being an 18-year-old perfectionist.

So for now, Berrios is looking for incremental gains between starts as they work on specific things. This week, there was a focus on command of Morales’ pitches. He’d force the right-hander to throw his fastball to a certain spot and when he got that figured out, he’d have him throw his slider to the same spot.

He’s hoping that work can turn around the results when he makes his next start next week in Mahoning Valley.

“He wants perfection right now,” Berrios said. “But in our case, we know the process and development he has to go through. In reality, he should be coming out of high school this year. And most high school players go and pitch in the Gulf Coast League. So he’s way advanced.”

They’re trying to find some consistency in Morales’ mechanics. At times, he has lost his arm slow as his body gets ahead of his arm and he loses the pitch to the arm side.

It’s a big part of the reason Morales has walked 19 in his 28 innings, which is the third-most allowed in the New York-Penn League this season.

“But you’ll also see times when he gets on top of the ball and drives it down and it’s almost an unhittable pitch with that velocity and location,” Berrios said. “The delivery part is still in its growing stages. It’s hard because we want it to be there right now. But we’re at the infant stages where I want him to get on his feet and start running around a little bit before next year so he can really start taking off.”

Morales doesn’t have the pitching experience most others his age have. He didn’t play much youth baseball, if any at all, growing up in Venezuela. And he started pitching only just before he was signed by the Phillies as a 16-year-old.

So at this point of his career, more than anything Morales just needs reps. He was limited during extended spring training to just three innings an outing until just before reporting to Williamsport where he was extended to five innings. He’s thrown five innings with the Cutters just three times, and three times has struck out at least five batters in an appearance.

Berrios believes it’s not going to be long before Morales is able to take a big step forward in his progression, much like Will Stewart, David Parkinson and Damon Jones have done this year with the Lakewood BlueClaws.

“He’s a little behind the 8-ball, but the tools and the talent are off the charts,” Berrios said. “I firmly believe that by next year he’s going to start making those game-by-game adjustments and that will put him on the fast track to the big leagues.”