Admittedly, I sipped the Charlie Morton Kool-Aid in 2013 as he took control during the stretch run. He pitched extremely well at an important time, posting a 2.67 ERA in his last 11 starts of the year. The team made an important financial commitment to Charlie this offseason, giving him a three-year, $21 million extension. He’s had some ups and downs between success, failure, and injuries, making the contract a risk to the team and its starting rotation.
The 30-year-old righty has a 4.35 ERA/4.58 FIP through five starts. The pitching has been shaky so far; Morton is a huge x-factor in the middle of the rotation that could sway the team’s success in a particular direction. Problem is, it’s tough to know if we’ll see the dominant playoff run Morton or the inconsistent Morton every time out. Here’s what we’ve seen so far in 2014…
Of course, Morton earned his nickname, “Ground Chuck,” through his annually high percentage of ground balls outs. His 62.9% ground ball rate led the Bucs – and all MLB pitchers who threw at least 100 innings – in 2014. Here’s a stat that caught me by surprise:
Where's ground Chuck?: GB% 2013: 62.9% 2014: 51.1% (including tonight)
— David Manel (@DavidManel) April 24, 2014
While that’s still above league average, it’s not at typical Charlie-Morton-sinkerball level. His bread-and-butter pitch, the sinker produced ground balls 17% of the time in 2013, but is sitting at just 12% in 2014. A guy who doesn’t get many strikeouts, Morton relies on the ground ball and help from his teammates.
With the decline of ground balls, Morton has allowed 5% more line drives and 7% more fly balls so far. The good thing about grounders is that they can’t go over the fence. Naturally, he’s showing his highest HR/9 and HR/FB rates since 2010. Keep ‘em on the turf, Chuck… this will be interesting to watch in his next few starts.
One red flag with him right now (and some other Bucco pitchers) is velocity.
Fourseam average: 94.27 (2013) / 92.92 (2014)
Sinker average: 93.15 (2013) / 92.33 (2014)
via Brooks Baseball
The past few years, Morton’s velocity declined as the season went on…
…so we’ll see where it goes from here.
One Bad Inning
Morton has looked great at times, then falters in a particular inning to get into a hole. At Wrigley two weeks ago, it was the three-run third (Starlin Castro HR) that brought the Cubs back into the game. At Miller Park, it was the Tony Sanchez error in the sixth that killed him. Last Friday at PNC, it was 3 runs on 3 hits in the fourth which put the Brewers ahead. On Wednesday, he held his own until the three-run fifth put the Reds ahead for good. The crooked numbers are killing Charlie so far; he’s put together respectable performances until the opponent fights their way back into the game or get a lead with one big inning.
“According to Jason Parks, #want is the manifestation of human desire and physical yield; when the yearning for perfection becomes visible to the naked eye.” – Baseball Prospectus Glossary
Charlie is probably one of the nicest baseball players around. From the interviews you hear to when you see him signing endless autographs at batting practice, he easily seems like one of the most genuine Pirates. At PirateFest, he seemed sincerely taken aback when I congratulated him on the contract extension. Maybe he’s a bit too kind; he’s had a reputation for being “soft” on the mound. One of Dejan Kovacevic’s articles from spring training described how Morton wants to be meaner this year:
“Spring is a season of change, but nothing could top the metamorphosis mentioned by the perpetually cerebral Charlie Morton after his five quality innings Saturday vs. minor-leaguers at Pirate City.
“I want to become angrier,” he mused.
Uh, sure. Nicest guy on the planet wants to add a snarl to his arsenal. Got it.”
Does Morton have a mean bone in his body? I’m not sure he’d ever want to kick someone’s ass like Gerrit Cole:
Your @Pirates quote of the AM from Gerrit Cole:"I just like to just beat somebody. Kick somebody's a$ really. That's what I'm good at."
— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) February 16, 2013
We’ve seen Cole’s fire on the mound over and over, as recently as his part in Sunday’s brawl. Not everyone has to physically or verbally show their “#want” like Cole, but it needs to be there for a big leaguer. Look at Francisco Liriano, for example, a quiet leader who seems to pitch with a different determination. I’m sure Morton is competitive (or else he probably wouldn’t be a professional athlete for a living), but maybe it’d be good for him to get a little edge, just like he told DK at spring training.
If Charlie can get the sinker working to induce ground balls, bring a bit of life back to his fastball, and piece together more consistent, dominating starts, the Pirates’ rotation will see improvement. If not, they’ll continue to have a lot of question marks going forward. Morton could be a difference maker.