Charlie Morton’s Dilemma

Last year, Charlie Morton had an ERA of 7.57, had a stint on the disabled list, and was bounced from the Pirates rotation and ended up back in Triple-A. This year, he has a 1.64 ERA, is averaging better than seven innings pitched per start, and is one of the main reasons the Pirates are a .500 team, only a game out of first place in the NL Central. He’s an early season success story, and credit is being given to his new Roy Halladay-esque delivery and the decision to lower his arm slot.

But at the risk of being a wet blanket, I’m going to suggest that Morton’s success so far is actually problematic long term, and it might just be in his best interests to get torched by the Marlins tomorrow.

There’s no doubt that Morton is a markedly different pitcher this year than he was last year. In addition to the delivery and arm angle changes that have been noted, he’s also dramatically altered his pitch selection. Last year, Morton was your standard 60% fastball/30% breaking ball/10% change-up guy, mixing four pitches and trying to throw strikes with most of them. His walk rate and strikeout rate were just about average, but because he posted crazy high totals in BABIP (.353) and HR/FB rate (18.4%), his results did not match his process.

The perceived failure has led to him ditching his secondary pitches this year and trying something entirely new. In his first three starts, he’s thrown 89% fastballs – mostly two-seamers – and basically scrapped the slider and change-up, using only his curveball as an alternative pitch. Take a look at his Pitch F/x plot for the season:

There’s a half dozen changeups in there and a few sliders, but as you can see, it’s mostly just one giant blob of blue, which is Morton’s sinker, and it’s essentially the only pitch he’s throwing right now. He has also decided that he’s going to use it to pound one location over and over.

As you can see from the two strike-zone plots above, Morton is aiming for the area of the strike zone that is down and in to right-handed batters and down and away from left-handed hitters. There’s a little more deviation against RHBs, where he’s been willing to climb the ladder a bit, but against LHBs, everything is down and away with few exceptions.

The results of this change? The highest GB% in baseball (68.7%), but at the cost of a big uptick in his walk rate (4.91 BB/9) and a Mark Buehrle-esque strikeout rate (2.45 K/9). Morton has the lowest rate of swinging strikes of any starting pitcher in the majors, and it’s not even particularly close. His decision to live in one particular part of the strike zone with one pitch has resulted in the outcome of nearly every at-bat being either a walk or a ground ball.

Unfortunately for Morton, that’s just not a long-term recipe for success. Ground balls are great, especially if you also never walk anyone, but Morton’s succeeding right now on the back of a .164 BABIP. There’s a good chance that this isn’t all “luck,” but instead is the residue of hitters not being prepared for his new arm slot and approach. Any hitter watching video of Morton last year to prepare for his at-bats against him this year is essentially watching video of another pitcher entirely, and the plan that he’s going up there with won’t help him at all.

It won’t take long for teams to get current video on Morton, though, and for hitters to start making adjustments to this new version. And when they do, Morton is going to have to adjust as well. He won’t keep getting hitters out frequently enough with just one pitch in one location. Put simply, this is not a sustainable result based on how he has been pitching.

It’s weird to say that a guy with a 1.64 ERA needs to make some changes, and it’s pretty likely that he wouldn’t agree with that based on the early returns, but this just isn’t going to work as a long-term strategy. Struggling through a few starts might be just what he needs to make some alterations to his approach and see if he can find a happy middle ground – one where his lower arm slot can still lead to a lot of ground balls, but where he can also throw strikes and get strikeouts when he needs them.

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

36 Responses to “Charlie Morton’s Dilemma”

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  1. Kirsh says:

    Interesting take, Dave. One question, though: Do you think Morton has the stuff to consistently outpitch his peripherals every year, a la Matt Cain, or is he going to regress big-time and really struggle?

    I agree that he isn’t a sub-2.5 ERA pitcher, but I’m not sure he can’t be a good #2 or #3 if he just gets his strikeouts up a little bit and controls the walks. Hitters have been getting a whole lot of nothing out of their contact off him; if you watch each start, very few balls have been hit with any authority.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Right now, his upside is Fausto Carmona. You just can’t succeed in the majors over any real length of time while walking more batters than you strike out.

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      • Kirsh says:

        I think that the extremeness of his K/BB rates are just a byproduct of the small sample size. He’ll never rack up strikeouts and he’ll always walk a few too many hitters, but I’d be surprised if his K/BB stays under 1.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      Another guy you can look at as an upside comp is Joel Piniero. This could evolve into something interesting to watch over the course of the season. I’m curious to see how he adjusts.

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  2. Jon says:

    I would argue that even if batters knew exactly what he was throwing, they still wouldn’t be able to do much with it. It’s nearly impossible to do damage with a 93 mile an hour sinker at your knees, and that’s the pitch he’s been throwing. I agree that big league hitters will adjust and start being more effective against him, but I don’t think Morton is going to stop being effective himself.

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  3. wily mo says:

    i think we also have to give the walk rate time to stabilize here. the first two starts using a new approach, he might have still been ironing the kinks out location-wise. his per-start walk totals have been 5, 5, 2. see what happens over the next few.

    also worth noting, i’ve read that the two-seamer is basically a new pitch. apparently crotta taught morton his sinker grip while morton was in the minors last year.

    how it looks to me is that morton, after that disaster of a 2010, needs a security blanket, a bedrock foundation of something that works to get major league hitters out, and this two-seamer is it. i think once he gains confidence that he can survive on a big league mound for more than two innings, it’s possible he might start mixing his other pitches back in more and the K rate could tick back up.

    so i guess i agree with the thrust of the piece, i’m just not sure if he needs to get shelled for that to happen or if it might just happen organically as he gets comfortable.

    or he could start getting shelled again. who knows.

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    • ToddSm66 says:

      Also, the two walks in the Reds game were both to Joey Votto with a man on 2nd and first base open – so not all of his walks so far have been issues with control. Sometimes, he is just pitching around a hot hitter with a base open.

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      • Doug says:

        I agree in the past Charlie has been his own worst enemy. Especially every time someone hits the ball hard off of him. His confidence level should be very high thus far and he should allow him self to start changing speeds and throw breaking balls!! I really do not want to see him get shelled as that will probably destroy him and his season!!

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  4. Pat says:

    Even though he is pitching VERY strangely, results are what matter and you can’t argue with them regardless of how ugly of a strategy he has. I don’t really have any basis to suggest this, but I think things will even out soon, he’s not going to have an abysmal strikeout rate all season and a tiny ERA. Wouldn’t be surprised to see his stats look similar to Carmona as you’ve said, and I’ll sure as hell take that after last year’s debacle of a season, even if his process was better last year.

    I wasn’t a believer after the first two starts, but seeing him go the distance vs the Reds means this might be crazy enough to work.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      “results are what matter and you can’t argue with them regardless of how ugly of a strategy he has”

      This is wrong. Bad Process –> Good Result is simply blind luck. The results are what matterED in the past tense and that is regardless of process. However, what matters in the future is having a process that can be expected to lead to good results.

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      • Bill says:

        To be fair, I don’t think it’s blind luck that he’s pitching as well as he is right now. He’s changed his approach and the league has been slow to adjust. It will. Only Mariano Rivera (and R.A. Dickey) can throw one pitch and consistently get batters out. Outside of these exceptions, I don’t care how good a pitch is, if a Major League hitter knows its coming and where it is coming, they can hit it.

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      • Seattleite says:

        “I don’t care how good a pitch is, if a Major League hitter knows its coming and where it is coming, they can hit it.”

        I agree with this to a point, but by the second or third time through the lineup didn’t the Reds have a pretty good idea of what they were going to get? They actually should have known what was coming the first time through. It should have been obvious from his first two starts that he wasn’t throwing what he was last year, and wouldn’t an MLB team have video of those first two starts?

        I’m sure there will be some massive regression here and he would do well to start mixing back in some other pitches, but it also seems too simplistic to say that as teams get more video they’ll figure him out.

        Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

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  5. Edmund says:

    Re: Bill

    As has been said, it’s hard to attribute Morton’s success so far to blind luck. To my eyes, it’s been based on these factors: a) that sinker truly is filthy. It comes in at 92-94, with really sharp, late breaking action. Mentioned above, I’ve watched most of Morton’s innings this year, and there has been little to no hard contact against him. b) hitters are unprepared for the new approach, delivery, etc. Furthermore, Morton has been working very quickly, both in pitch count and time between pitches. I suspect that this is keeping hitters off balance, prolonging the adjustment that they will inevitably make.

    One the hitters do adjust, I’m optimistic, because Morton’s other pitches are quite good. I have little doubt that Hurdle and Searage are just as aware as any of us that Morton’s success won’t continue with these ratios. One has to figure that they are planning for that eventuality in how they work with Charlie. Particularly, the curve he has is really strong. My guess is that as the season wears on a bit, Morton will start working in more curves and four-seamers, continuing to use the sinker as his go-to pitch. If the sinker continues to be a dominant pitch as it has been so far, I think he’ll be just fine if he makes the adjustments on his end.

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  6. JRoth says:

    It’s worth noting here that Dave is making a very simplistic analysis of Morton’s 2010. It’s all well and good to say that those BABIPs and HR/FB are unsustainable, but you have to actually look at how Morton pitched. And how he actually pitched last spring (he was reasonably effective when he returned to the bigs in late summer – his ERA was over 10 before September) was in some ways similar to how he’s pitched this spring. Sure, there was a blend of pitches. But as soon as runners got on, he’d go to a straight FB, belt high, down the middle. So he had an awesome K rate (over 9), which xFIP loves, but he also had an LD% of 32 in April. Zowie.

    I’m pretty sure BABIP and HR/FB don’t normalize for a guy who’s effectively throwing batting practice.

    Leaning so heavily on one pitch may not be a long-term strategy, but it’s a better one that what he did last spring, and it may be part of a path to a sustainable approach.

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  7. Bucfan says:

    Morton’s success is absolutely hinged on his 2-seam, and I agree that an offspeed pitch will assist Morton tremendously. On occasion, a K is necessary and right now, Morton does not have a pitch to get that strikeout.

    However, Morton was voted as having the best curveball in the Braves’ system in 2008. He has a hammer of a curve. He is struggling to locate the pitch with his new release point, but the curve is still there.

    When he can locate the curve ball, to go along with his 92-94 mph bat-snapping 2-seam, he will be nasty.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    As you can see from the two strike-zone plots above, Morton is aiming for the area of the strike zone that is down and in to right-handed batters and down and away from left-handed hitters.

    In other words, he’s “Doing a Pineiro” or if want it to sounds even sillier “Pulling a Pineiro”.

    Throwing strikes down and in the RHBs, down and away from LHBs … is the the exact thing that makes dave Duncan a “genius”.

    If Morton can keep hitting his spots, why not?

    You know what you do with a low and in 2-seamer/sinker? You foul it off your front foot and try again.

    Rather than predict his downfall, wouldn’t this evidence be used to show that he’s found something successful that he’s likely to be able to duplicate.

    If he was doing this as a member of the cardinals, I have a feeling this situation would be viewed very differently.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      You’re, of course, ignoring the fact that Joel Pineiro threw strikes, and Charlie Morton is not throwing strikes. It’s a massive difference.

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      • epoc says:

        His Zone% is basically the same as it’s always been. I think the poor walk rate is largely a small sample issue (though it’s also partly a result of not getting swings and misses). You’re obviously right that Morton needs to mix in a greater percentage of non-fastballs to keep hitters off-balance and get some Ks, but we know he has other decent pitches, so this doesn’t strike me as a dire situation. If hitters ever start to pick up on the sinker, he can mix in his other stuff.

        I do think CircleChange is correct that with a sinker as good as Morton’s, pounding the low-and-inside corner with it is a viable strategy. And I also share his surprise that the tone of this article is “Morton better watch out because he’s skating on thin ice” rather than “Morton has become a much better pitcher by developing a new pitch/approach.” Even if he’s no better than Fausto Carmona, well, Carmona’s a fine pitcher.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        The beauty of having a pitch that moves like that is you can “aim down the middle” and the movement takes it low and in.

        While he may not have pinpoint control yet, he does have a reasonable grouping of his pitches. When he misses, he’s misses in, off the plate. That’s a GREAT spot to miss, as opposed to missing over the plate.

        Right now he seems to be conceded walks instead of giving up hits. Probably not a great long term strategy, but he’s not giving up homers at his usual rate either. If I’m converting myself to a sinkerballer (or even a poor man’s Jeff Suppan in the mid 2000s) …. I’ll take the extra walks at the expense of giving up fewer homers.

        I know pitcher wins are not an advanced metric, but look at it like this … in 3 starts in 2011, he has equaled his 2 wins in 17 starts last year. Charlie Morton is not going to be Joel Pineiro in terms of BB/9 … but the good news is that’s not going to be “Charlie Morton” anymore either. *grin* Morton was a bad start to the season from being out of baseball. Charlie Morton has a shot at being league average …. not with fWAR (FIP-based), but in terms of runs allowed, he could be league average … which is significant given that he was probably the worst starter in baseball last year.

        The key with everything is advanced scouting … we need to see how he does the “second time around”.

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  9. Edinson Volquez says:

    Bucs fans should be more concerned with his high walks than his low Ks. Walks kill…..Trust me

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  10. Andy Man Dyke says:

    Keep in mind Morton threw 81 of 108 pitches for strikes last time out – that’s pretty darn good. Cloning Halladay will take some time – let’s give him another 10 starts and see where he’s at.

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  11. gonfalon says:

    the Roy Halladay comparison is especially interesting given that Halladay was truly awful in 2000 (even worse than Morton was in 2010), but was above average the next year (albeit with 8.3 K/9), an All-Star the year after that, and the AL Cy Young award winner in 2003. who knows, if Morton can ramp up his strikeout totals, maybe he’ll be the NL Cy Young award winner in 2013.

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  12. WHYGRoyH says:

    So you’re saying he may only be a #6starter?

    (Full disclosure: copied from Bucs’Dugout)

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  13. JE Molesky says:

    I think his ridiculously low BABIP line reflects the quality of his ridiculously good sinker. I think this is a better explanation than citing the current lack of batters’ adjustments which would have been made, as an earlier commenter noted, the third and fourth times through the lineup. Of course, throughout his season the BABIP will surely normalize a bit, but that is a nasty pitch, and relying on it heavily is a recipe for success. Maybe not 89% of the time, which I agree is unsustainable, but if he mixes in that curve, we’ve really got something here. Great post, though, and insightful comments, especially the sanguine comparison to Halladay’s 2000 season. I wish Rocco Demaro were still on the air so that he could enjoy his retribution on this subject. Oh, Rocco, we miss you!

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  14. Eric V says:

    In regards to his BBs, I agree that it too early to say that he will settle at this high rate (as was noted, he was pounding the zone in his last start vs CIN), but in my observations, a couple (at least) factors explain why his rate is higher than his norm: his ball is moving quite a bit more these days and he is still making adjustments based on his new arm slot, the pitch movement and even, it seemed, his position on the rubber.

    So…though his K:BB is bad now, we’ll see if it stays that way. He could and likely will still have a decent K rate for some starts – based on his secondary stuff that night and how well the opposing team sees his sinker (which can sometimes be a strikeout pitch). The Ks will be inconsistent more than likely but he can be effective either way if he keeps his walks down.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Walks are worth fewer “base runs” than hits. Furthermore they don’t advance runners.

      Not that anyone has a 50/50 choice … but you’d rather give up a walk than a hit.

      The problem, obviously, is that with a walk you have zero chance of getting the batter out.

      Last year he a K/9 of 6/67 and a BB/0 of 2.94, a really good ratio …. he had a HR/9 of 1.69 to go with a .353 BABIP.

      Trying to strike guys out and not give up walks is not a great strategy for Charlie Morton. He doesn’t have the stuff to challenge in the zone.

      His only chance to nibble and rely on movement and not give in. I said earlier, but if he can continue to trade fewer K’s and more walks, for less hits and far fewer homers … he will have much more success than he had last year as a BP pitcher.

      Look at the other guys that have ~4.5 BB/9 … there’s basically 2 ways to survive, [1] be a high K guy that doesn’t give up homers, or [2] be a groundball guy that doesn’t give up homers.

      CM won;t sustain his .164 BABIP nor his 90% LOB, and along with it his 1.64 ERA. However, if he can keep his HR/9 under 1, preferably around 0.8, then those walks are not going to be nearly as costly as we traditionally think. WHEN he walks a batter is also very important. If he’s issuing walks, pitching around good hitters with 2 outs … that’s lot better than walking the 2-hitter leading off the inning.

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  15. John says:

    His sinkers have some ridiculous Halladay-esque movement on them.

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  16. Person says:

    Almost sounds like we could be talking about John Lannan last year, except with opposite results.

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  17. Person says:

    Pre-demotion Lannan, of course.

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  18. Rufio says:

    Part of his low and thus far fortunate BABIP is his ability to pitch to the weaknesses of the hitters. In his first start of the season against the Cubs, I was very impressed with his consistency in locating pitches, and the movement on his sinker.

    The BABIP will obviously increase as the season progresses, but a sinker ball pitcher that can pound RHB inside will always have value as a #2 or #3 starter

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  19. Septimus says:

    Well, it looks like the Marlins got the memo — they just got 5 straight singles and a walk to score 4 off Morton in the second. Granted, they were aided by a couple bad defensive plays, but it certainly looked like they were predicting Morton’s approach and waiting on him.

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    • matt w says:

      They were also aided by this.

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      • matt w says:

        (Of course fangraphs doesn’t make links visible — the link on “this” is to a Brooks Baseball plot, showing that of the four balls called on the walk, three were in the strike zone.)

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      • Septimus says:

        Didn’t look that way to me… though who knows? Those sinkers are tough to call balls or strikes from the TV.

        Anyway — through 3 innings, Morton has allowed 6 runs, 8 hits (all singles) and 3 walks. Retired 5 of the first 6, but threw 16 strikes/14 balls the first time through the lineup. (Or at least 14 pitches that were called balls.) And the second time through the lineup, when everyone had seen him and made him throw strikes, it was all over.

        3 strikeouts, though. So at least he’s doing that again?

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