Charlie Morton’s Kryptonite

Despite being up 2-1 in the NLDS, today is a pretty important game for the Pirates. A loss not only means that the series goes to a deciding game 5, but that game 5 would be in St. Louis, and the Cardinals would put Adam Wainwright back on the hill for that deciding game. Beating Wainwright at home is no easy task, and they can’t feel very good about that match-up given how poorly the first game of this series went for the Pirates.

So, it’s not an elimination game for Pittsburgh, but this is the one they want to win. Beating Michael Wacha in Pittsburgh is a much easier task than beating Wainwright in St. Louis. To win this game, though, they’re going to need a strong performance from Charlie Morton, or at least, several innings that keep the score close before the battle of the bullpens takes over. If you look at Morton’s season line — 116 innings, 3.26 ERA/3.60 FIP/3.69 xFIP — that doesn’t seem like it should be too much to ask. But Morton, as a pitcher, has one very big flaw that might be a problem against St. Louis today.

Morton throws fastballs about 70% of the time, and most of his fastballs are of the two-seam variety. It’s why he posted a 62% GB% this year, and it’s why he absolutely destroys right-handed batters. He throws a heavy, pounding sinker that just eats RHBs for breakfast, but the same strengths that allow him do dominate righties create serious problems against left-handers.

Here are Morton’s career platoon splits:

vs L 10.6 % 14.7 % 1.05 0.364 4.99 4.64 0.321 0.410 0.497 0.395
vs R 7.2 % 14.9 % 0.50 0.279 3.65 3.87 0.244 0.315 0.345 0.295

Even though this was Morton’s best season in the big leagues, his improvement almost entirely came from better performance against RHBs, and was was still just as terrible as ever against lefties. 2013 only, lefties put up a .382 wOBA against Morton, and he posted a 4.66 FIP/4.84 xFIP against them. Charlie Morton, against left-handed batters, is basically a replacement level pitcher.

Generally, the Cardinals would actually be a pretty decent match-up for him, since the middle of their order includes RHBs like Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and Yadier Molina. However, Craig’s injury slides the left-handed Matt Adams into the line-up, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Cardinals also decided to start either or both of Daniel Descalso and Kolten Wong to take advantage of Morton’s huge splits. If they go with Wong and Descalso up the middle — Matt Carpenter would shift to third base, with David Freese on the bench — their line-up today would include six left-handed bats, with only Holliday, Molina, and the pitcher as match-ups that favor Morton.

More likely, Morton gets the luxury of also facing Freese, since Wong is a rookie who didn’t exactly light things up during the regular season, but even if Freese starts, that’s five left-handed bats he’s likely going to have to run through. Carpenter, Beltran, and Adams could do some serious damage if they see a continual run of two-seamers, and that is Morton’s primary pitch even against left-handed hitters.

While I’m generally against pitcher-vs-team splits, it’s probably worth noting that Morton has actually faced the Cardinals three times this year, and it hasn’t exactly gone well. In those three starts, he managed a total of 13.2 innings, gave up 23 hits, walked 5, struck out 8, and allowed 12 runs. The Cardinals hit .406/.459/.531 against him in those three starts.

The Pirates can lose today and still advance to the NLCS, so Clint Hurdle doesn’t have to manage this game like the season is on the line. But Pittsburgh does not want to get to Game 5 in St. Louis. They want to be done with Adam Wainwright. To make sure they don’t have to beat him on Wednesday, they need Morton to get some good left-handed hitters out today. He’s never really shown that he can do that with any consistency, but it’s baseball, and anything can happen. Morton’s platoon splits don’t portend certain doom for Pittsburgh; I’d suggest that Pirates fans hold their breath whenever a lefty steps to the plate, however.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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