The Rising Fortunes of Lynchburg’s Eli Morgan

Right-handed pitcher Eli Morgan began his professional baseball career a little more than one year ago. Now the number 29 ranked Indians prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is in his first full season. Morgan has reached the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats working as a starting pitcher. This path to a career in baseball is a recent development.

“Through high school, I wasn’t even sure about college baseball,” said Morgan. “I wasn’t getting looked at.”

Growing up in the town of Rancho Palos Verdes on the Pacific coast, just south of Los Angeles, you might guess that Morgan spent a lot of time at the beach. In fact, the opposite was true. Sports occupied his time, leaving him few spare moments to enjoy the nearby Pacific Ocean. Before high school, he played soccer, basketball, and baseball, but narrowed his focus to just baseball once he started at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School.

“In soccer, I was slow, and in basketball, I was short. Baseball was all that was left,” Morgan said.

The only Division I college offer that he received was from Gonzaga University. Located in Spokane, Washington, it is unlikely Morgan could have found a place that was as different from his home town in which to pursue his education. The finance major learned that the weather in eastern Washington would require a serious adjustment.

“My first year it snowed a bit, and my second year was not that bad,” Morgan said. “My junior year it was just brutal. For three straight months it was snow on the ground.”

Beyond the weather, he enjoyed his time at Gonzaga. He still has some work to do to finish his degree, but has money put aside to do that when time permits.

As a member of the Bulldogs baseball team, Morgan improved his pitching each year. He pitched primarily out of the bullpen as a freshman, getting only three starts. It was his sophomore and junior seasons that provided success creating a pathway towards baseball as a profession.

In 2016 and 2017, Morgan earned a place on the WCC All-Conference team. He won 10 games in each season, and over his Bulldog’s career his K/9 ratio rose from 7.09 to 8.68 to 12.34. It was in his junior year that thoughts of a professional career in baseball became a reality.

“It wasn’t really a thought until I got that first questionnaire. Then I thought, someone’s taking a look at me, this might be an option,” said Morgan about the change in his path.

I didn’t hurt that fellow Gonzaga pitchers during his first two seasons were getting selected in the top ten rounds of the baseball draft.

Teammate Andrew Sopko was taken by the Dodgers in the seventh round of the 2015 draft, and Brandon Bailey was chosen by Houston in the sixth round of the 2016 draft. Having teammates who were high on teams’ draft boards gave him exposure and led to his selection in the eighth round of the 2017 draft. Fellow Bulldog pitcher Wyatt Mills was also taken that year in the third round by Seattle, marking an impressive three-year draft run for Gonzaga pitchers.

Morgan also built his resume playing summer ball in the wood bat college leagues. In consecutive summers he pitched eight games each summer, first for the Mat-Su Miners in the Alaskan Summer League, and then the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod League.

It was with Mat-Su that he marked an unusual achievement.

“I pitched in the Midnight Sun game,” said Morgan.

Each year, on the longest day of the year, the Alaska Goldpanners host a 24-hour baseball event. They can do this because at the latitude of Anchorage, the sun never sets. PONY ball, American Legion ball, and many other baseball and softball events are a part of the festivities, including an Alaskan Summer League game. Morgan was fortunate enough to have his turn in the rotation match with this game.

“I think the game started at 10 PM, no lights,” he said. “Just sunlight the entire day.”

The toughest part for Morgan was adjusting his routine for that late of a starting time. He needed to fill his day to make it to that start time, but he remains happy that he got this opportunity.

“It was really fun and something I’ll never be able to do again,” Morgan said.

Getting drafted was also something Morgan only got one chance at, but it also has worked in his favor.

“Draft day was a very stressful, anxiety-filled day,” he said. “There was nothing better than hearing my name called by the Indians.”

The Cleveland organization has built a strong reputation on their excellent handling of pitchers, both in managing their workload, and providing exceptional rehabilitation for injuries. Coming off a heavy workload in college, Morgan had pitched 100 or more innings in his final two college seasons. The Indians did not want to overtax his arm.

With an assignment to rookie-level Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League, Morgan worked in a piggyback role. He would follow the starting pitcher, getting a few innings of work in and adjusting to everyday life as a professional.

He would pitch 35 innings for the Scrappers, striking out 58 hitters while walking only nine. This earned him a place with the Low-A Lake County Captains to begin the current season, and then a promotion to the Hillcats on May 16.

Along the way, Morgan has picked up three Pitcher of the Week awards – one in the Midwest League and two as a member of the Hillcats pitching staff. He earned the most recent of these for the week of July 2. Winning both of his starts that week, Morgan handily won his third weekly award. Across two leagues, he has posted a season WHIP of 0.89 and opposing batters have generated a weak .190 average against his offerings.

“Seeing some of the stuff I’ve been working on with our coaches, specifically the slider, pay off has been really cool,” said Morgan.

The 22-year-old features three pitches – a fastball, a change-up, and the slider he has been working on since joining the Cleveland organization. He does not have an eye-popping fastball, working that pitch in the 89-MPH range on most nights.

“He has a change-up that is very good. The best you can ask for a kid to have,” said Hillcats pitching coach Tony Arnold.

Control is Morgan’s specialty, setting up his off-speed offerings. He is most confident in his change-up and works to get ahead in the count to use his off-speed offerings to send hitters back to the bench.

“I’m really confident in that pitch, throwing it down in the zone for a strike or a swing,” said Morgan about his change-up.

In the current season, he has pitched 104 2/3 innings and has 124 strikeouts and only 20 walks. His career-high for punch-out’s is 138 in his final season with the Bulldogs. He looks to surpass that total this year. Even with his success, Morgan remains humble and dedicated to his craft, knowing that he will not have his best stuff every night.

“You feel really good three or four out of ten starts,” he said. “Other ones, you just have to find a way to get it done.”

Morgan has found that way more often than not, tied for the Hillcats team lead in victories with six. Add another two wins from Lake County and Morgan is at the top of the victory list for Cleveland farmhands.

“This league is going to present other challenges for him, and that is going to be good for his development,” said coach Arnold.

Even when dealing with adversity, Morgan knows he is prepared to handle it. He credits his success to his father.

“My dad never played a lick of baseball, but he was really helpful when I was growing up,” said Morgan. “I was not the best listener, but he would take the information from my coaches and teach me the stuff.”

It is clear that Morgan learned what his father taught him. He will continue to toe the rubber every fifth day and build a solid foundation for future success.

Photo: MiLB.com

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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