The Pittsburgh Pirates thought they had snagged an under-the-radar starter when the club acquired Charlie Morton (along with prospects Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez) in a June 2009 trade that landed Nate McLouth in Atlanta.
A lanky, 6-4 right-hander who displayed drastically improved peripherals at the Triple-A level (150.2 IP, 8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9), Morton made 18 decent starts for the Bucs after the swap. In 97 innings, the Braves’ third-round pick in the 2002 draft posted rates of 5.75 K/9, 3.71 BB/9 and a 4.62 xFIP, getting grounders at a 49 percent rate. Heading into 2010, the projection systems viewed Morton as a good bet to be an above-average big league starter:
ZiPS: 3.99 FIP
CHONE: 4.16 FIP
FANS: 4.16 FIP
A quick look at the 26-year-old’s stat sheet suggests he’s pitching more like Charlie Brown. Tossing 31.1 innings, Charlie has a 9.19 ERA. Good grief.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see some reasons for optimism. Using low-90’s heat, a pair of breaking pitches and a changeup, Morton has punched out 7.76 batters per nine innings with 2.87 BB/9. His xFIP is far less frightening than his ERA, at 4.00.
So why the ERA high enough to make manager John Russell turn greener than the Pirate Parrot? Morton has suffered from a .389 batting average on balls in play. When hitters loft the ball, it’s leaving the yard a whopping 21.9 percent of the time. Morton’s career rate is 11%, which is right around the MLB average as well. And his strand rate is absurdly low: just 46.8 percent of base runners have failed to cross home plate, the lowest figure among starters by a wide margin.
Morton clearly won’t continue to allow so many base runners to score, but he has experienced some problems pitching with men on during his big league career. Courtesy of Baseball-Reference, here are Morton’s splits with the bases empty and with runners on base, as well as the NL average for pitchers in 2009:
And here’s the change in Morton’s performance, compared to the average for NL pitchers in 2009:
On average, pitchers perform worse with runners on base. Last year, NL pitchers saw an increase of eight points in batting average and 24 points in on-base percentage with men on base compared to bases empty situations. Pitchers allow slightly fewer extra-base hits with men on, but they strike out a few less batters and walk more batters as well.
Even compared to the average pitcher, Morton has scuffled with men on base. His K rate has dipped considerably more than the average. Charlie has allowed plenty of extra-base hits with runners on, too, compared to bases empty situations (+74 points of ISO).
It’s true that strand rates can vary among pitchers, though numbers straying greatly from the 70-72% MLB average are likely to regress back toward the mean. These stats indicate that Morton does have problems with runners on base. But, even if one concedes that he struggles out of the stretch (some think he could be tipping his pitches), Morton’s strand rate is going to rise a good deal. The lowest strand rate among starters in 2009 (minimum 100 innings) was 59.3%, by Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar.
For the rest of 2010, ZiPS projects Morton to post a 3.99 FIP, with 6.49 K/9 and 3.42 BB/9. NL-only players willing to endure ridicule from fellow owners (you picked up WHO? Hah!) could get a solid starter with some upside in Morton.
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