Charlie Morton’s Crazy Platoon Splits

After Charlie Morton‘s first three starts of the season, his ERA stood at 1.64, and I noted that his revamped style of pitching simply wouldn’t let him keep this up for much longer. Since I wrote that article, Morton has made five more starts and posted an ERA of 3.27 – technically that does represent regression, but it’s still better than I would have expected. After another dominant start last night, I figured we needed to take another look at the guy they call Ground Chuck.

In Morton’s last five starts, he has reduced his reliance on his sinker, going from 90% fastballs in his first three starts to “just” 80% in his last five. He’s still basically just throwing one pitch, but he has mixed in his off-speed stuff a bit more in order to be a little less predictable. It has helped as well, as after posting a 12/6 BB/K ratio in his first three starts, he’s at 14/23 in his last five. The decrease in fastball usage has led to fewer walks and fewer ground balls, but overall it’s been a worthwhile trade-off for Morton – his xFIP has dropped from 4.09 in April to 3.63 in May- putting fewer men on base outweighs the small change in his batted ball profile.

But there’s still an area that has to be cause for concern with Morton, and it’s directly related to the changes he’s made to his repertoire. Morton has decided to lean on a two-seam fastball more heavily than just about anyone in baseball, and as Dave Allen has noted, the two-seam fastball and the slider have the largest platoon splits of any pitches in baseball. Two-seamers are great against same-handed batters, but aren’t an effective weapon against opposite-handed hitters.

Morton’s splits show that he’s no exception to the rule. After posting fairly neutral splits last year, Morton has one of the largest gaps of any pitcher in baseball this year.

Vs RHBs: .156/.224/.178, 2.56 FIP, 3.14 xFIP
Vs LHBs: .385/.488/.538, 6.75 FIP, 5.82 xFIP

He’s turning opposing right-handed batters into something like a mediocre hitting pitcher while left-handed batters are teeing off on him at a rate that would put them on the All-Star team. His BB/K against righties is a solid 12/25, but against lefties, it’s 14/4. Since Morton is attacking lefties almost exclusively with a pitch that doesn’t work against them, he’s essentially unable to get them out.

So, how does a guy with that kind of vulnerability to left-handed bats have a 2.64 ERA through eight starts? Put simply, he’s gotten pretty fortunate in the kinds of lineups he’s faced so far.

148 of the 228 batters that Morton has faced this year – a whopping 65% – have been right-handed. The average for all right-handed pitchers in the majors this year is 52%, and that includes relief pitchers who can be selectively used to exploit platoon match-ups. Most starting pitchers have to face predominantly opposite-handed line-ups, and managers especially tend to stack the deck with left-handed bats against RHPs who have demonstrated massive splits.

Yet Morton’s opponents so far have run mostly right-handed line-ups at him because they happen to have more right-handed bats than average. For instance, here’s the line-up the Reds threw at him last night.

Stubbs (R)
Janish (R)
Votto (L)
Phillips (R)
Rolen (R)
Lewis (L)
Gomes (R)
Hanigan (R)
Arroyo (R)

That’s a line-up made to be shut down by a guy like Morton. You pitch around Votto and attack everyone else, and that’s exactly what Morton did. It’s probably worth noting that both of his complete games this year have come against the Reds, who have only managed one run against him in those two matchups.

Morton’s worst start of the year came against the Marlins back on April 20th as he gave up six runs in five innings. Florida started Chris Coghlan, Greg Dobbs, and Emilio Bonifacio against him. Not exactly a murderer’s row of left-handed thumpers, but those three managed five of the 10 hits off of Morton. His other poor start of the season came against the Rockies on May 1st – they used Dexter Fowler, Alfredo Almezaga, Todd Helton, Carlos Gonzalez, and Seth Smith to get him for four runs in 5 1/3 innings. On the night, Morton walked five and only struck out one batter in large part because he was didn’t have an endless string of right-handed bats to dominate.

The NL Central is more right-handed than most divisions, so Morton will get to face fewer left-handed bats than if he played in another division, but he’s still not going to get to keep drawing line-ups where 2/3 of the batters he faces are righties. Given the types of opponents he’s faced so far, using his fastball almost exclusively does make some sense, but he’s going to have to make adjustments when he starts facing more left-handed batters.

He’s already made some adjustments as the season has gone on, but he’s going to have to continue to diversify his approach. This all-fastballs, all-the-time thing isn’t going to work against every lineup. So far, he’s gotten some favorable match-ups, but that won’t last all year, and he’ll have to do something besides pound his sinker against lefties if he wants to keep pitching well all year.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


52 Responses to “Charlie Morton’s Crazy Platoon Splits”

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  1. Jon Ede says:

    Well interesting article. Morton is very likely to regress, but could continue as a decent pitcher. Why not try attacking LHB with a different variety of pitches?

    PS- Gabby Sanchez is a righty.

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  2. Will says:

    Why do you hate Charlie Morton, you biased prick!

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  3. Mark says:

    Gaby Sanchez is right-handed, Dave. I offer the correction, because I have a hard time not making the same mistake.

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  4. Dave says:

    Ground chuck. Awesome nickname.

    I was going to ask why he doesn’t throw his changeup more, especially to LH hitters but then I noticed the changeup velocity is up almost 4 MPH from last year! What?! Learning a completely new delivery takes a lot of time and effort so I applaud Morton for that. It really is incredible. But I hope now he is working on a new changeup or a splitter or something to help get lefties out.

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    • RyanK says:

      Dave, the reason his changeup is up 4mph faster this years is because in addition to his delivery, he also altered his changeup in the offseason. He used to throw a circle change, but upon switching to the new delivery, he didn’t like the movement in his old changeup. So he started using a splitter instead of a circle change and then found better movement with it.

      So that’s why you’re getting that extra 4mph. It’s a different pitch altogether.

      The splitter is a fairly new pitch for him, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see his lefty splits get better as he becomes more comfortable throwing that pitch.

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  5. Toz says:

    This is a really great piece Dave. I was discussing Morton on Alex Patton’s site earlier today, and I did not really think to look at his splits. Thanks for the good insight here.

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  6. Garrett says:

    Very interesting writeup, enjoyed this. Thanks, Dave.

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  7. Ao513 says:

    Sorry, but just two weeks ago lefties were hitting .364 against him now down to .290. Morton is getting better each time out. If there is an exception to peripherals it has to be Morton this year. He made Votto look bad last night.

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    • Bill says:

      I think Dave’s numbers are actually wrong. I’m not sure where the .290 comes from, but the .385 is actually the batting average, and the .488 is the on base percentage. They’re slugging .538..

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        Yep, good catch – that was a transcription error on my part. .290 is actually his K/BB ratio against lefties. Yuck.

        The numbers in the post have been fixed.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Okay, that changes things quite a bit. Being on base 38% versus 48% is huge.

        That’s where i was thinking, “Okay, at worst he gets ~2 out of every 3 lefties out”.

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      • jrogers says:

        It’s pretty bad to have a K/BB ratio that gets mistaken for a batting average.

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  8. Terry says:

    So you’re saying Charlie Morton is like #6 starter?

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  9. JD says:

    Great article. Thanks.

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  10. CB says:

    Dave, great article. I think it’s worth noting with Charlie that the adjustments you want him to make probably are being made beyond just fewer fastballs. With the new arm angle, he is transitioning from his slider to a cutter, and he’s given up his old changeup for a split-change. The new change actually looks really promising, but it’s still a work in progress.

    It’s just an interesting case because this is a pitcher who has completely changed all his pitches — even his curve breaks differently now — because of the new arm angle. It’s bizarre he’s making these changes on the fly and still doing decently for himself.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    2 Things …

    [1] If you’re going to rely on the sinker or 2-seamer, throw right-handed.

    When lefties take over the world, as I’m sure we will, Morton will be screwed. Until then, most lineups are predominantly right-handed, and he’ll be okay.

    Since Morton is attacking lefties almost exclusively with a pitch that doesn’t work against them, he’s essentially unable to get them out.

    It’s important to point out that “unable to get them out” in this case literally means “they get on base 38% of the time”.

    Figure up how many left-handed batters he actually faces, and there’s probably not a huge cause for concern.

    but he’s still not going to get to keep drawing line-ups where 2/3 of the batters he faces are righties.

    I bet he does.

    How many teams feature 4 or more left-handed batters?

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      I listed the league average right in the article. Did you just skip that part?

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I’m not sure how/why, but I did miss it.

        148 of the 228 batters that Morton has faced this year – a whopping 65% – have been right-handed. The average for all right-handed pitchers in the majors this year is 52%,

        My question was specifically in regards to how many times he is going to actually face a lineup that is less than 2/3’s right-handed (versus not).

        I don’t think the data answers my questions …

        [1] How many teams feature lineups of 4 or more LHBs?

        [2] How often will he face lineups that are 2/3’s right-handed?

        My feeling/comment was that he will, pretty much, still face a lot of 2/3’s righty lineups.

        If teams take out a decent RHB and put in a lesser LHB, how does that all play out?

        Some of what we’re seeing is because lefty starters (position players) are better hitters because they are relegated to “hitting heavy positions”.

        ————————————

        Even if he faces an extreme 50/50 split of vR/vL, he has a 4.65 FIP, 4.48 xFIP?

        Given that his ERA is a full run+ lower than his FIP, because of the nature of his batted ball data (GB%), we’re looking at a worst case scenario of an ERA in mid/high 3’s? For Charlie Morton? Ka-ray-zee.

        What you point out is a valid situation and concern, and I wasn’t trying to make light of it. I just don’t think teams have a lot of good lefty-hitting, righty-fielding players that they can just substitute when Morton pitches against them. In the AL, you could DH a lefty and it’s a non-issue. In the NL a 9th-spot hitting lefty is still a hitting pitcher.

        So, basically, NL teams would need to be looking at left-handed hitting, right-handed fielding 2B’s, SS’s, and 3B’s that can platoon when Morton pitches against them. How many dudes like that are there in the NL?

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      • lex logan says:

        I doubt the NL average is 52%. How many AL teams use a right-handed DH against a RHP?

        Here’s a quick breakdown of LHB’s on NL Central active rosters (excluding Morton’s team):
        Reds 3
        Cubs 4.5
        Astros 3
        Brewers 3.5
        Cardinals 4.5

        The .5’s are switch hitters. So, that’s 18.5/65 = 28% lefties if lineups were chosen at random, and 18.5/40 = 46% lefties if teams used all their available lefties against Morton. Counting the switch hitters as full opposite-handers, we’d get 21/40 = 53%, or 47% same-handed, but is Larussa going to sit Pujols and Holliday to play Mark Hamilton and John Jay? I think 60-65% righties is not unlikely, but even 40% lefites could cause Morton problems IF the additional lefties are actually good hitters (such as Jay Bruce.)

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        That’s what I was thinking in regards to Morton’s specific situation …. if teams already had good left-handed batters on the roster they’d be playing everyday (i.e., and against all the other RHPs).

        The odds are not good that teams just have good lefties sitting around the bench that should be playing against Morton, but aren’t starting against all the other RHBs. The lefty batters on NL benches are Skip Schumaker, switch hitters not good enough for everyday play, or 4th outfielders.

        I just didn’t see “those guys” being the bane of Charlie Morton’s future. Jon jay isn’t likely to start over Matt Holliday to counter Morton’s success. It could be an interesting discussion whether he should, but it’s not likely to happen.

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  12. lex logan says:

    Jay Bruce was scheduled to play RF for the Reds but had to be scratched; Gomes is historically poor against righties, so that was a break for Morton. The Reds have three LHB’s on the active roster (Votto, Bruce and Lewis) and two more on the 40 (Francisco and Hermida.) Juan Francisco just came off the DL and is basically rehabbing, so next time the Reds face Morton they might be able to put four lefties in the batting order. But I’m afraid we might need to clone Ted Williams and Joe Morgan to handle Morton!

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    • lex logan says:

      Oh, I missed Yonder Alonso, but the Reds can’t use two players at first or a DH against Morton. Even adding Juan Francisco to the active roster would probably require an injury or dropping to 11 pitchers.

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  13. SethBeno says:

    Morton has been using this delivery for 2-3 months and he’s already putting up great numbers. I predict his BB% decreases, his K/9 increases and he becomes an ace.

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    • SethBeno says:

      BTW, you basically said that Morton’s philosophy going into last night should be to pitch around Votto in order to have success…In 4 AB’s against Morton last night, Votto managed a weakly hit single, two ground outs and a whiff. This might be part propoganda but…Lyle Overbay was quoted as saying that with his new delivery, Morton is a clone of Roy Halladay….with better stuff. It echoes other thoughts from people close to the situation.

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      • jroo says:

        This is the most fascinating thing to me. I’m a Philly fan, and have been trying to watch Morton as much as possible. He really had adopted just about everything Halladay does. Obviously the delivery is the biggest. He also seems to gradually be lining up with the same pitch selection. Even his mannerisms on the mound are similar. I really hope we get to see a Halladay – Morton matchup when philly and pittsburgh face off.

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      • cs3 says:

        when he pitched against the Giants back on 4/26, one of the broadcasters (i think it was Krukow?) said that Morton had actually based his new pitches/mechanics/approach directly on Halladay.
        I cant remember if Morton himself told them that, or if it was someone on Pittsburgh’s coaching staff.

        But i have to say, watching him pitch that day did trigger a striking resemblance to Halladay… from his body type/demeanor, to his pitch usage, and especially his delivery (specifically both hands over head, slight crouch as his hands begin to break)

        to see what im talking about
        check out 00:14 of this vid:
        http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=14845143

        and 00:19 of this one:
        http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=14932349

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I really hope we get to see a Halladay – Morton matchup when philly and pittsburgh face off.

        Wonder what Halladay will be thinking at the plate, facing Morton.

        The rest of the league will be thinking “Yeah, see how you like it.”

        ——————————————

        I teach my son the same “Halladay Mechanics”, slight over the head during the rocker step. Knee raise between the elbows, slight tuck (bring chin toward the knee, keeps front shoulder closed), slight foot sweep to 3B line leading to a long stride, glove extends toward home before tuck, finish well in front of the mound.

        Essentially, it’s flawless (Halladay).

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Wow, I deal with pitching mechanics quite a bit, and the similarities are amazing.

        If all one saw were their outlines, I wonder if we could tell them apart. Similar frames, and really, even similar gaits walking around the bump.

        It’s also interesting because Halladay is one of the few (only?) pitchers that actually steps behind the mound (instead of to the side) for his rocker step.

        I have not really seen Morton pitch this year due to having well, baseball games of our own basically each night. But, the things he is doing well, are things that he can keep doing well. The exception is probably that his HR/9 will regress some regardless of anything else. Morton’s is currently 0.33 (Halladay = 0.26, interestingly enough), where even very low for a SP for a season is around 0.6.

        To be fair, people cannot predict the turnarounds of Lee, Bautista, Morton, etc. But, I do think you can look at someone and see how they are doing what they are doing and conclude whether they can keep it up, when looking at their approach of modus operandi.

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  14. PL says:

    Ground Chuck is okay, but I prefer Chuck “Jelly Roll” Morton as a nickname.

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  15. Kevin says:

    I hope it is okay if I throw in a link here.

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on Charlie Morton and how he changed his mechanics.

    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11123/1143662-63-0.stm

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  16. Jim Lahey says:

    I keep thinking that Morton and Masterson are basically cloned.. this only furthers my opinion

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  17. Travis says:

    Masterson and Morton need to throw more cutters, changeups, and curves to left-handed hitters, and pound right-handed hitters with the two-seam/sinker. That would solve the platoon split immediately, as the article by Dave Allen would suggest.

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  18. CircleChange11 says:

    The big deal is the cutter, as illustrated by Halladay. The changeup’s effectiveness works off the fastball.

    The margin for error on curveballs to opposite handed hitters is reduced. If a cutter can have some sink, along with some gloveside movement, it serves as a 2-seamer/sinker’s “mirror reflection”, where the goal is to get in on a hitter’s hands or down so they beat it into the ground.

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  19. Criminal Type says:

    What I like about Morton is this:

    He’s truly a work in progress. It’s hard work re-tool a motion. It’s hard work to change grips, an overall “arsenal.” He’s like a little baby horse learning to walk.

    He opened the season feeling good about the two-seamer. That was it. He knows he has to add stuff, particularly something to work against lefties on a consistent basis, and you’re seeing him do that with his change. He’s slowly gaining confidence in the pitch now. It’s absolutely fascinating.

    Have we ever seen this before? An MLB guy who basically starts from scratch?

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  20. John says:

    yes, Jose Bautista, and we all know how that turned out.

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  21. brendan says:

    When checking out Morton’s peripherals I was initially concerned that there were clear signs he was getting lucky and there was no way he’d continue to be successful. But the important thing to keep in mind with Morton I think is that he’s still very much a work in progress. Continuing to learn, refine, and improve. If he ceases to then he’s certainly a candidate for regression. But already we see that his control is trending in a positive direction, which was one of his biggest issues early on. Here’s a video after the games last night where he discusses his continuing evolution as a pitcher:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJmYocZ4Ttg

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  22. Bucfan says:

    Morton’s splits were horrible against lefties his first four starts as he worked on his delivery. He has been better since the Rockies game, however. Further, the observation that he will regress to more sustainable numbers and not have such a low ERA as the year progresses … are you seriously suggesting that that only “sustainable” part of Morton’s season is the ridiculously high OPS he is giving up to left-handers (above 1.000)?

    Oh, okay, very good showing = must tend towards the norm; something historically, record-setting bad = shows the guy is going to revert overall to the norm, even if part of that reversion assumes that the massive trouble with one group continues unabated and for some reason does not “revert.”

    Got it.

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  23. Neal Huntington says:

    While he hasn’t thrown many this year Mprton’s out pitch has always been his curve. That’s where he gets swings and misses. If he gets confident throwing that pitch watch out.

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  24. Young Gung says:

    Love these type of platoon splits x pitch type posts. Its hard to find this type of analysis, that’s outside of the fact that it wasn’t even until a couple weeks ago that I noticed there were platoon splits based on pitch types.

    DAVE, we’re going to need another Garza article in the future. If he continues to go with his newfound pitch arsenal, can you go into depth on how his pitch type has helped his platoon splits (this is assuming he continues to pitch good too).

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  25. CircleChange11 says:

    Early in the season his K/BB rat didn’t look that great because he was conceding walks at the expense of giving up hits.

    FG posted his location charts and when he missed, he was missing low and in/out. So, when he got behind, he kept throwing to hard to hit well spots, versus just laying it in there.

    That’s not the worst scenario.

    If he just continues to avoid the long ball, he’ll be fine.

    That he’s improving his K/BB rat shows that he’s either improving his command or throwing tough to hit pitches when behind or both.

    The assumption is regression, but reality might be continued improvement.

    At one point Cliff Lee also looked like he was due to fall back to Earth. Trevor Cahill, too. Jaime Garcia too.

    That these guys can continue to adjust and improve at the ML level is impressive. Most don’t.

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  26. Charles says:

    #6 org.

    Have you even watched Morton pitch once this year? Serious question.

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  27. Kirsh says:

    Morton is going to be someone who consistently outpitches his peripherals. I agree with you, Dave, that there will be some regression — a 2.62 ERA is nuts — but he’s not going to fade into mediocrity. He gets a lot of hitters to punch the ball straight into the ground, and the strikeouts and walks are improving for him as he gets more comfortable with the new arm slot and pitch sequences.

    He’s good. He’s not an elite pitcher, no, but there’s no reason he can’t be a no. 2 starter for a solid team. His career K/9 is 1.5; he’ll get to that number, and with it, I believe his xFIP would get to around 3.60.

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  28. Big Biffy says:

    When talking about Morton, at this point, how can you rely on “career” anything? It’s basically like comparing two different pitchers. That being said, how can you really compare his first start of 2011 with his latest one (constantly adjusting and learning)?

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  29. SethBeno says:

    Yep, Dave is going to seriously regret this post soon.

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  30. RyanK says:

    One thing I’ve noticed from being a Pirates fan and watching Morton every start is that the improved walk rate as of his last two starts certainly doesn’t appear to be random. Right from the get-go of the first game when the walks started improving, (May 7th, 7.2IP 5K 1BB) I noticed his fastball velocity was down a bit. Then as the game went on he started upping the velocity in good pitcher’s counts. It was pretty clear that he was holding back a bit to help improve his command.

    In his most recent start, his fastball averaged a little faster, but the pattern was the same with him upping the velocity only in good pitcher’s counts. He wasn’t doing that as much earlier in the season. It was more of a grip it and rip it approach.

    His improved walk numbers in these last two starts don’t seem to be a fluke, and I think the reason is that he is being smarter in the way he occasionally takes a bit off of his fastball on order to help his command.

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  31. Jonny5 says:

    Morton will be taken to task against Philly this Saturday. Nearly everyone bats lefty and everyone loves fastballs. I think he may just get into trouble with that team.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      2 earned in 7IP. Pretty good. I’m really getting tired of everyone using FIP. Contact pitchers should never be analysed using that statistic. It’s stupid. That’d be like judging a huge truck based on it’s fuel economy. Sure it can be a bit useful, but that’s not even what it’s purpose is.

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  32. Peter Christensen says:

    OK, I’m on the Charlie Morton bandwagon.

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    • Travis says:

      Me, too. FIP/xFIP against LHB is now 4.71/4.53. His BB/K ratio against LHB since this column is 4/10.

      It’s been fun seeing a pitcher start from scratch like this.

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